- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) More than 800 doctors in Florida, and a dozen more in Mississippi, stayed off the job yesterday to protest rising malpractice-insurance costs.
Organizers of the protest in the Palm Beach County-area protest said the doctors were staying off the job to attend a two-day conference looking at the problem.
Palm Beach hospitals prepared for the absence by adding to their emergency room staff and rescheduling elective surgeries.
"We want the patients to understand that there's a major crisis and something has to be done soon," said Dr. Stephen Babic, a Delray Beach cardiologist.
Complaints about higher insurance rates, driven in part by jury awards for malpractice, are being heard from doctors around the country.
About two dozen surgeons walked off the job in West Virginia earlier this month. Doctors in New Jersey are considering a similar protest in February.
A task force appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently voted to recommend that jury awards for punitive damages and pain-and-suffering awards in medical-malpractice cases be capped at $250,000. A final report is due by the end of this month.
Dr. Robert Kline, president of the Florida Medical Association, said last year 130 patients received claims worth more than $1 million.
"So we're jeopardizing care for 16 million people in the state of Florida because of these 130 claims?" Dr. Kline said. "We're approaching Third World medicine where people are traveling 100 miles to get specialized care."
Victims of medical malpractice, however, say the industry can't put a cap on the value of someone's health or life.
Wayne Portch, 56, said he lost both legs below the knee and parts of four fingers after two doctors failed to diagnose an infection over four days. He and his wife say they're looking for accountability.
"We know a lot of good doctors. This isn't about the good doctors. This is about the bad doctors," Paula Portch said. "Our whole life has changed. Should this be allowed to go on?"
In Mississippi, a dozen surgeons took leaves of absence yesterday from four Gulf Coast hospitals Memorial Hospital, Garden Park Medical Center, Gulf Coast Medical Center and Hancock Medical Center.
An earlier agreement, which would have kept a surgeon on call on a rotating basis at one of the four hospitals to handle "life-threatening injuries," was scrapped after physicians concluded the plan could overload surgery units at those hospitals.
"We have considered the options and have concluded that for the safety of all patients, no surgeries, emergency or otherwise, will be performed at these facilities," said a spokesman for the general surgeons, Dr. Alton Dauterive.

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