- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

A recently released study by a national consumer-advocacy group found that doctors practicing in the District do not face a crisis because of rising malpractice-insurance costs, contradicting warnings by city leaders and medical groups.
Researchers from District-based Public Citizen issued their findings in a report, "Medical Misdiagnosis in Washington, D.C.: Evidence Against Proposals to Restrict Compensation to Malpractice Victims." According to the study, there is no evidence that malpractice rates caused by a rash of lawsuits is creating a crisis in the city.
Instead, researchers said, data show that malpractice lawsuits filed in the District have declined significantly in recent years, as have malpractice premiums for doctors as a group.
"Given the data, it's clear that there is little, if any, malpractice-insurance problem in the District," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has been considering tort-reform legislation that would include limits on plaintiff attorneys' fees and put a $250,000 cap on jury awards for noneconomic damages, better known as "pain and suffering" awards. Maryland caps such awards at $620,000 and Virginia at $1.65 million.
The consumer group warned that caps on malpractice jury awards would hurt patients injured by negligent health providers.
"Proposals to limit patients' legal rights are simply an effort to curry favor with well-heeled special interest groups, not improve the quality of health care in Washington," Mr. Clemente said.
Local medical groups have derided Public Citizen's report as "inaccurate and misleading."
The report "reminds me of my first statistics class, 'Winning with Statistics,'" said John Lawson, a rheumatologist and president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia.
"They have twisted the numbers to get the conclusions they want, and the report is loaded with incorrect assumptions and facts. I don't know why they are carrying water for the trial lawyers."
The study found that the District has the highest physician-to-population ratio in the nation and that the average malpractice premium is lower in the District than in 46 states, including Maryland and Virginia. The report also showed that premiums in the District have been declining during the past decade.
Public Citizen researchers cited studies from the Institute of Medicine indicating that medical negligence and errors involving D.C. patients is "considerable," with 89 to 199 deaths annually. The increases in insurance rates were attributed to insurance industry economics.
Malpractice insurance rates range from $19,000 annually for an internist to more than $100,000 for specialists such as obstetricians and neurosurgeons.
Dr. Lawson and other advocates for tort reform dispute any decline in malpractice rates, saying they have risen for the past five years and are up 25 percent this year. He said malpractice rates in the District are double those in Maryland and Virginia.
The reason, he said, is because the District leads in per-capita medical lawsuits and has the second-highest total jury awards in the nation.
"The only difference between doing business across Western Avenue or the Potomac is the insurance rates," he said. "That is why many doctors are opening up satellites offices in the suburbs or flat out moving after doing the math."

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