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Orlando Sentinel

The head of the state’s largest insurer for physicians defended sharp increases in medical-malpractice insurance rates and told a Senate committee Monday that his company doesn’t need legislative reforms to remain profitable.

During the first day of a testy state Senate hearing, Bob White, the president of First Professional Insurance Co., said his company won’t falter if a cap on malpractice victims’ pain and suffering fails to become law this year. In fact, White said, Florida is the most profitable state for FPIC Insurance Group, First Professional’s parent company.

“I’m telling you that if we can’t make money at these rates, then we ought to quit,” White said.

However, White said his customers — about one-fourth of the state’s 38,000 licensed doctors — would argue that the rates have “reached the brink of unaffordability” and that an array of lawsuit limits are necessary to contain the skyrocketing rates.

White was one of more than a half-dozen people to testify under oath before the Senate, which made good on a threat to swear in witnesses in a last-ditch effort to find the reasons for doctors’ soaring medical-malpractice premiums.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigative hearing delved into the financial records of malpractice-insurance firms and also put a wide array of lobbyists for insurers, doctor groups, lawyers and even state insurance regulators under oath. The hearing is set to continue today, even as House and Senate leaders continue to talk behind the scenes about a compromise.

After the hearing, Sen. Alex Villalobos, chairman of the committee, said the testimony had done little to convince him that caps are the answer to soaring premiums. Nothing in the testimony proved that a slew of frivolous lawsuits have been filed in Florida in recent years, he said. And testimony by regulators disproved complaints by doctors’ groups that physicians are fleeing the state in record numbers, he said.

Diane Orcutt, a deputy director at the state Department of Health, testified that the number of applications for new medical licenses actually rose to 2,658 in fiscal 2003 from 2,261 in fiscal 2000.

“So when people testify that [doctors] don’t want to come to Florida, that wouldn’t be true,” said Villalobos, R-Miami.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said legislative leaders continue to have behind-the-scenes talks on medical malpractice but still aren’t near a final deal. He said he’s hopeful legislators will end their impasse by the end of this week, which would require extending the current special session past its scheduled finish Wednesday.

“It’s been a productive weekend. There has been progress,” King said Monday, refusing to be more specific.

The House measure would prevent any one doctor from being sued for more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages but allows victims and their relatives to collect up to $1 million by suing multiple defendants. The Senate bill allows many victims to win up to $1.5 million in noneconomic damages and allows the most catastrophically injured to collect up to $6 million.

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