- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

CHICAGO, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Increasing numbers of lawsuits by patients and large jury awards are pushing malpractice insurance costs over the top and threatening continued access to patient care, results of a new survey released Wednesday conclude.

The survey, by 42 member plans of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, indicates physicians are leaving markets where medical malpractice costs have skyrocketed, retiring early or refusing to perform high-risk procedures.

In addition, doctors, in a bid to avoid later malpractice troubles, more and more are practicing defensive medicine — ordering additional tests or procedures — which drives up health care costs.

The survey's findings mirror similar conclusions from an American Medical Association report last year that identified 12 "crisis" states and other states with growing medical malpractice problems.

"We believe medical malpractice in the United States is now doing exactly the opposite of what it was originally intended to do," said Scott P. Serota, BCBSA president and chief executive officer.

"Medical malpractice laws were enacted to protect patients in the event of an egregious error in medical judgment or treatment. But today, our medical tort system is so distorted that it is threatening healthcare affordability, access to care — and some would argue it is jeopardizing quality of care."

This trend is "taking us in the wrong direction," Serota continued. "Protecting patient rights must start with keeping healthcare affordable and accessible and promoting improved patient care."

The situation came to a head last week when doctors in West Virginia called a strike. Demonstrations also were mounted in Florida and Pennsylvania. The situation has reached crisis proportions in Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, the AMA reported, and it might not be long before 23 other states and the District of Columbia join the list.

All of the Blues plans in the crisis states said rising malpractice premiums are a problem and a majority said doctors are cutting back on some aspects of patient care as a result, including refusing emergency room calls and to see some patients. Some doctors are dealing with the problem by moving to another state.

Fees for surgical and obstetric services are expected to increase significantly as a result of increasing liability insurance costs.

On a 1-to-5 scale, the Blues ranked inappropriately large jury verdicts as a serious problem, scoring it a 4.5 in crisis states and 3.5 in non-crisis states. Increased litigiousness by patients was scored 3.7 and 3.6, respectively.

"The current dash-for-cash medical tort environment is clearly not adding value to the healthcare system as a whole by threatening affordability, access and quality," Serota said.

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