- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

RICHMOND — Lawmakers in Virginia, where rising medical malpractice insurance rates have forced nearly 100 doctors to quit their practice in the past year, will take up legislation today that could bring tort reform.

Many in the General Assembly have said Virginia earns high rankings for its restrictive malpractice and tort laws. Still, the state’s medical community is calling for malpractice-insurance reform to keep physicians from either quitting high-risk specialties such as surgery, obstetrics and gynecology or leaving the state and setting up their practice elsewhere.

Ann Hughes, director of legislative and political affairs for the Medical Society of Virginia, said doctors must be involved in the process to bring about change.

“We have doctors who can no longer afford to keep their doors open who are going out of practice,” said Mrs. Hughes, whose group has organized a lobbying effort called “White Coats on Call” at the state Capitol.

“We are losing physicians,” she said. “We’ve lost close to 100 in the last 12 months in Virginia.”

Lawmakers nationwide have been trying to address tort reform. The Maryland General Assembly took up the issue last year, and President Bush has said he will tackle it during his second term.

The Republican-controlled legislature in Virginia will consider capping pain and suffering awards at $250,000 and limiting attorney fees for medical malpractice cases.

Delegate Brian J. Moran predicted the legislature would implement a few changes to the medical malpractice system. The Alexandria Democrat and lawyer said the state already has a conservative tort system.

“We don’t need a total overhaul, but we will make some changes,” he said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith agreed. “We’re up in the top already,” said the Salem Republican, who also is a lawyer. “The insurance companies are playing with us.”

Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Gate City Republican, has sponsored an omnibus medical malpractice bill based on proposals offered earlier this month by the Joint Subcommittee Studying Risk Management Plans for Physicians and Hospitals.

The delegate’s bill includes several proposals, such as revising the definition of malpractice to limit it to a tort action or breach of contract for personal injuries or wrongful death. It also proposes requiring liability insurers to submit annual reports to the State Corporation Commission.

Mr. Kilgore’s bill also calls for a provision that would prohibit patients or their relatives from using a doctor’s expression of sympathy as evidence in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

There are several identical bills proposed in the House and Senate.

The bills are pending in the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees. Each committee is expected to take up some of the measures today.

Mrs. Hughes said she commends the joint subcommittee for its recommendations. “This is a very good first step to take,” she said.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s legislative agenda also calls for requiring a preliminary expert certification that would help eliminate frivolous malpractice claims.

“We’ve got to weed out the bad ones,” said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat. “This is something I care deeply about. This is the year we’re going to do something about it.”

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, last week embraced medical malpractice reform during his State of the Commonwealth address, urging legislators to approve the proposals recommended by the subcommittee.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who is Terry Kilgore’s twin brother, said he was glad Mr. Warner addressed tort reform. “I’m glad he spoke about the needs and embraced the legislative study,” the Republican said.

The attorney general and Mr. Kaine are expected to challenge each other in the gubernatorial race this year.

In Maryland, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly earlier this month passed a medical malpractice insurance reform bill that includes a tax on health maintenance organizations.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode the veto. Lawmakers developed the bill during a special session Mr. Ehrlich had called after Christmas.

The legislation freezes the cap on noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $650,000 for three years. It also reduces from $1.6 million to $812,500 the maximum payout for errors leading to death.

Mr. Ehrlich has promised to include in his budget an increase in Medicaid reimbursements and a plan to add millions to help defray the cost of the insurance premium increase. He is expected to submit his budget today.

Virginia already caps medical-malpractice awards at $1.75 million.

Doctors who stop practicing medicine in Virginia most likely won’t go to the District or Maryland, where insurance premiums are higher, according to a recent analysis of liability premiums in all three jurisdictions.

Premiums have more than doubled in the past five years for most medical specialties in the District, Maryland and Virginia, according to an analysis by District-based NCRIC Inc., the primary insurance carrier for the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, a trade group for D.C. doctors.

Virginia still trails Maryland and the District, according to the analysis, which is based on rates for $1 million to $3 million in coverage.

The analysis shows, for example, that neurosurgeons in the District pay $123,206 per year, compared with $98,122 in Virginia and $76,104 in Maryland.

OB-GYN specialists in the District pay $122,323 annually, $115,837 in Maryland and $72,425 in Virginia, the analysis shows.

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