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Docs rally for laws setting limits on malpractice awards

Newsday (New York)

Under the shade of pine trees at Heckscher Park in Huntington, at least 200 doctors in white coats gathered to get out a dire message. Unless there’s medical malpractice reform, they threatened there will be fewer obstetricians to deliver babies, fewer qualified individuals becoming physicians and more patients possibly dying.

They said this despite statistics showing that New York State has no shortage of physicians. The demonstration was one of 21 yesterday organized by the Medical Society of the State of New York. One was in Nassau, at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. Many doctors canceled their afternoon appointments in order to attend.

They were all calling for the same thing: a $250,000 cap on awards for pain and suffering. This would not preclude covering the cost of medical expenses.

“Why are we here today?” asked Robert Scher, vice president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. “To let patients know, they and we, are in difficulty.”

In Suffolk, they said, some of the effects are already taking place. Although there has always been a pattern of obstetrician-gynecologists dropping the obstetrics part of their practice as they age, six of the 19 obstetricians in the East End stopped delivering babies or left the practice because of their inability to afford the premiums, according to Dr. David Kirshy, a radiologist

and treasurer of the Suffolk County Medical Society.

For example, the annual cost of malpractice insurance premiums is $115,431 for ob-gyns in Nassau and Suffolk; for neurosurgeons, it’s $180,343, according to the Medical Society of New York.

“The crisis in Long Island is a microcosm of what’s happening across the nation as obstetricians are leaving the practice of obstetrics,” said Dr. Denise Lester, obstetrician/gynecologist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip. “Anytime there’s any problem with the baby, the people will quickly blame the obstetrician. Even when it’s not.”

Right now, New York State has the nation’s second highest number of physicians per capita, with many of them concentrated in the New York metropolitan area, according to 2000 data from the American Medical Association.

During the rally, organizers pointed to the large number of physicians being sued. Indeed, during the past five years, 60 percent of the obstetricians insured by the Medical Liability Mutual Insurance Co. were sued; so were 60 percent of orthopedists and 70 percent of neurosurgeons.

While the number of claims has gone up, contrary to what the physicians said, the overall premiums for 2002-2003 have not increased, according to Don Fager, vice president of Medical Liability Mutual Insurance Co. The premiums for the upcoming year have not been determined yet, Fager said.

Throughout the one-hour demonstration, little was mentioned of the medical errors that claim between 44,000 and 98,000 lives each year nationwide in the hospital, according to a 1999 report issued by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, compiled by a scientific review of other studies. It’s a higher number than those who die of breast cancer, car accidents or AIDS.

But if the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering were the law of the land, families trying to recover noneconomic damages would have a hard time finding a lawyer to take cases, even if there were gross negligence, according to The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which is based in California.

Ilene Corina, a Wantagh mother whose 3-year-old son, Michael, died 13 years ago after surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, said it is already difficult for families to bring suit against physicians.

“They talk about ‘frivolous lawsuits,'” said Corina, who has founded the organization PULSE, a support and advocacy organization that aims to reduce medical errors. “Do you know how long it took me to find a lawyer who would take my case? No lawyers wanted it, because you can’t recover very much for a 3-year-old child.”

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