ANNAPOLIS -- Medical-malpractice settlements in Maryland have nearly doubled in less than five years, according an insurance company that covers about 75 percent of the state's doctors.
The average settlement for a medical-malpractice case has risen from $216,727 in 2000 to $410,546 this year, said John Franklin, a spokesman for Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland. Meanwhile, the number of malpractice cases filed each year has remained between 600 and 700, state officials say.
The overall amount that Medical Mutual has paid in malpractice cases rose from $56 million in 2002 to $93.2 million last year, said Mr. Franklin, whose company was organized and is owned by the state's doctors.
"The cost of litigation has soared because of skyrocketing jury awards," Mr. Franklin said, adding that the high cost of malpractice insurance and the increase in settlement claims have driven many doctors out of the state or out of business.
State officials say a health care crisis is looming as rising malpractice costs discourage doctors from pursuing high-risk specialties, such as obstetrics and surgery, and force more patients to see fewer physicians.
Donald J. Hogan Jr., the Ehrlich administration's deputy legislative officer, said Medical Mutual is conducting a survey of physicians and their specialities to see whether Maryland has suffered a net loss of specialists. Meanwhile, the state's population has increased by more than 515,000 residents since 1990, according to the 2000 census.
"This is a health-care-access issue," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told The Washington Times recently. "It is not the trial lawyers against the insurance companies, the consumer advocates against the right wing -- the business people.
"It is a 55-year-old neurosurgeon deciding to retire or teach or leave rather than practice," the Republican governor said. "It is an [obstetrician] telling a pregnant woman in two months that when she is eight months pregnant he's gone or she's gone. It is an [obstetrician] deciding to no longer do [obstetrics] but go to [gynecology], and you have seen these decisions now for a while."
Mr. Ehrlich -- who has not ruled out a special session -- in June appointed a task force of more than 20 lawmakers, doctors, lawyers, insurers and others to address the state's rising malpractice costs. The task force is to deliver its recommendations by the end of next month.
Last month, Medical Mutual received a 33 percent increase in malpractice premiums for next year, after requesting from the state a 41 percent increase because of large lawsuit losses. The rate-increase request comes after a 10 percent increase two years ago and a 28 percent increase last year.
The new increases mean that some doctors will pay as much as $150,000 a year or more for malpractice insurance.
Protesting doctors in Hagerstown had earlier announced that they no longer would see nonemergency patients, beginning Nov. 15, to force legislative reforms in malpractice. Mr. Ehrlich yesterday talked them into delaying the strike, according to the Associated Press.
"We have actually talked to physicians in Maryland who have escaped Pennsylvania because of [that state's] tort crisis in the late 1990s. Now these relocated physicians are looking at leaving Maryland," Mr. Ehrlich told The Times. "The filings are not up. It's the settlements and the judgments that are driving this issue. So it is something that we believe demands a comprehensive solution now."