- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

D.C. doctors said yesterday they will be forced to practice outside of the city unless the D.C. Council passes medical-malpractice tort reform this year.

The Medical Society of the District of Columbia, an association for 1,800 D.C. physicians, said at a press conference that a cap on medical-malpractice awards is needed to lower medical liability insurance premiums, which have been surging in the past decade.

The doctors said they pay five- to six-figure annual premiums in the District because of high malpractice awards, which average $584,338 per payment. The average was $283,403 for Maryland and $227,289 for Virginia. All three were higher than the national average of $142,637.

The group said a capped award for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in malpractice suits of $250,000 would help lower premiums and prevent doctors from crossing over to Maryland or Virginia, which have lower liability premiums than the District.

But Wayne Cohen, a medical-malpractice trial lawyer in Northwest, said caps have shown no effect on easing insurance premium rates, citing a June 2003 report by Weiss Ratings Inc., a Jupiter, Fla., financial rating services company.

The report found that capping noneconomic awards reduced the burden on insurers, but premiums in states with capped awards jumped at a faster pace than states without them.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said at a separate press conference yesterday that he supported putting medical tort reform on the agenda.

Mayoral spokeswoman Sharon Gang said Mr. Williams plans to introduce a malpractice reform bill. She would not say whether the bill would be similar to the one Mr. Williams introduced in July, which did not pass the D.C. Council during the last session.

Maryland’s General Assembly is in the midst of finalizing a medical-malpractice bill, while Virginia is debating the issue this legislative session.

Dr. James Cobey said at the event that he must decide within six months whether he will continue his practice in Northwest. The orthopedic surgeon paid a $100,000 insurance premium for 2005.

“I might make it through this year, but I need to look ahead. If it goes up anymore I’m in trouble,” Dr. Cobey said.

Dr. Peter Lavine, an orthopedic surgeon who established his practice in Northwest, moved his headquarters to Alexandria in November 2003 after his premium rose to $62,000 in 2002. The same policy in Northern Virginia was priced at $37,500 in 2002, he said.

Dr. Lavine kept his D.C. office, but has cut down the amount of time practicing there and eliminated taking any emergency-room calls in the District.

Dr. John Niles Jr. practiced as an obstetrician and gynecologist for 34 years in the District before a low, six-figure premium forced him to move his practice to Greenbelt in May.

Dr. Niles would not give an exact amount for his insurance rate but said he stopped delivering babies in April because the premiums for being an obstetrician were too high.

D.C. obstetricians and gynecologists paid an average premium of $139,528 this year, according to a recent study by D.C. insurance company NCRIC Group Inc. The report estimated the average premium would rise 11 percent to $154,876 by 2006.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.

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