- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s largest association of doctors said yesterday that as many as 40 percent of the state’s physicians will close or leave the state if lawmakers do not soon address rising costs brought on by increasing medical malpractice premiums.

The dire prediction, the key finding of a statewide survey of doctors, was announced yesterday, the same day that surgeons at Prince George’s Hospital Center — frustrated about the rising premiums — announced a plan to stop performing non-emergency surgeries starting Nov. 15.

“These lawsuits are killing us. A real parasite wouldn’t kill the host, but lawyers are killing the host,” said Dr. Willie Blair, president of medical staff at the Cheverly-based hospital.

The announcement of the survey findings and the action in Prince George’s County come as the issue increasingly is dominating political debate between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state lawmakers.

Last month, state insurance regulators approved a 33 percent rate increase for Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, which insures about three-fourths of the state’s doctors. The rise pushed premiums for some doctors to more than $150,000 per year and followed a 28-percent rate increase this year.

“It is very troubling,” said Michael Preston, executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society, which conducted the statewide survey. “Even if only a fraction of these doctors chooses to leave in the coming months, you are looking at the prospect of patients having difficulty finding a doctor when and where they need, especially in emergency rooms.”

The medical society, which represents about 7,000 doctors statewide, surveyed 774 physicians from August to September. The study shows that 28.6 percent of doctors were contemplating closing, selling or retiring, and 9.8 percent indicated that they might relocate to states where the cost of practicing medicine was lower.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican who recently has moved the issue of malpractice reform to the top of his priority list, has warned that he may need to call a special session to address the matter.

Donald J. Palmisano, president of the American Medical Association, also warned earlier this year that Maryland is one of 25 states on the verge of joining others that are in full-blown medical liability crises.

“You are not alone,” he told a gathering of area doctors. “In 19 crisis states, physicians are taking early retirement, or abandoning high-risk services, because they cannot afford or find liability insurance.”

On Monday, a group of doctors from the Washington County Hospital Association in Western Maryland agreed after a meeting with Mr. Ehrlich to delay its plan to halt non-emergency procedures.

An Ehrlich spokesman said yesterday that doctors from Prince George’s Hospital Center have not contacted the governor’s office about their plans.

Dr. Blair said yesterday that about 100 doctors at Prince George’s Hospital Center met last week and discussed discontinuing non-emergency surgeries such as biopsies, colonoscopies and some gynecological procedures starting Nov. 15.

He called the move “a last resort” to protest skyrocketing medical malpractice premiums, which doctors blame on overzealous lawyers and frivolous lawsuits.

“We’ve lost nine physicians at the hospital because of this,” Dr. Blair said. “The lawyers say they’re just protecting the public, but if that’s all they were doing, then they wouldn’t take 40 percent of the award judgments.”

Some doctors from the hospital said, however, that they’re uneasy about a work stoppage, even though they agree that malpractice premiums are too high.

These doctors say a work stoppage also could trigger a backlash against the physicians.

“I’m concerned about the malpractice issue, but I don’t think I could be party to a work stoppage,” said Dr. James Abell, an obstetrician.

Dennis F. O’Brien, treasurer and public relations chairman of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, said a work slowdown by doctors could violate federal antitrust law.

He also said he isn’t convinced that doctors, either at Prince George’s Hospital Center or other Maryland hospitals, will follow through with the decision to halt non-emergency procedures.

“I think a lot of doctors are backing off this threatened job action,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We’ve seen in other states when they’ve made the same threat and they don’t go through with it because these doctors are being told that what they’re doing is an antitrust violation.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he added.

Mr. O’Brien said insurance companies, not lawyers, are to blame for skyrocketing premiums.

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