- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

Physicians and surgeons in Virginia, stung by rising medical-malpractice insurance costs, want state lawmakers to cap pain and suffering awards and limit how much money lawyers can make in malpractice cases.

The latest demand by Virginia doctors follows similar calls for help from their counterparts in Maryland and the District, who are lobbying their respective lawmakers for tort reform — an issue that drew support from President Bush during his re-election campaign.

Last February, thousands of doctors marched at the Capitol in a daylong demonstration calling for tort reform.

Beginning in January, physicians said they plan to be in Richmond throughout the legislative session — as many as 100 strong on any given day, said Dr. Mitchell Miller, a family physician in Virginia Beach and outgoing president of the state medical society.

The “White Coats on Call” campaign, which kicked off during the medical society’s annual meeting in Arlington this past weekend, will differ from previous attempts by doctors to draw attention to the rising cost of medical-malpractice insurance premiums.

“If we think we’re in trouble now, it’s going to be an absolute mess 10 or 15 years from now,” said Dr. David Ellington, the incoming president of the Medical Society of Virginia, which represents about 6,700 doctors statewide.

Dr. Ellington, a family physician in Lexington, Va., said doctors want a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards, a reduction in lawyers’ fees in pain and suffering awards and for the state to allow insurance companies to pay physicians directly for out-of-network care.

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell said yesterday that something needs to be done to give doctors a break on rising medical-malpractice premiums. But he added that he isn’t sure whether the answer is a cap on pain and suffering awards.

“This is a real critical issue facing Virginia, and I think the rising health care costs are attributable to the medical-malpractice awards,” the Stafford County Republican said. “The problem is, Virginia has a cap on medical-malpractice awards already that limits the total amount you can get, so having a cap within a cap might be a tough sell.”

Virginia limits total malpractice awards at $1.75 million, but that figure is set to rise to $2 million, Mr. Howell said.

Lawyers across Virginia plan to fight any move to cap malpractice awards or limit lawyers’ fees. They say capping awards is unnecessary because Virginia is among the most restrictive states in the country in its medical-malpractice laws.

“The doctors are proposing the $250,000 cap, and that is essentially what they proposed last year,” said Jack L. Harris, executive director of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, which opposes the proposal. “Virginia already has among the tightest medical-malpractice laws in the country.”

But doctors say they need the reforms to keep physicians from leaving the state or quitting high-risk specialties such as surgery, and obstetrics and gynecology.

“Without these changes, we’re going to lose valued medical professionals,” said Dr. Miller. “The health care delivery system is badly broken.”

If doctors leave Virginia, they most likely won’t open a practice in the District or Maryland, where insurance premiums are even higher, according to an analysis of liability premiums in all three jurisdictions.

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