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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Malpractice poll shows doctors at risk

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One third of Ohio physicians say they'll close their practices within two years - 58 percent within three years - if malpractice insurance premiums continue their rapid rise, according to a survey released yesterday.

"We're extremely concerned. I would have guessed 20 percent, but these are the numbers and I have to accept them," said Dr. William Sternfeld, a Toledo surgeon and president of the Ohio State Medical Association.

Steve Collier, a Toledo trial lawyer, isn't so accepting.

"It's a loaded question" to ask doctors if they'll close their practice early because of high insurance bills. It's like asking someone if their taxes are too high, he said.

Mr. Collier is a member of the Ohio Medical Malpractice Commission, which was set up last year by the legislature to investigate rising malpractice premiums.

Medical association officials acknowledged that "closing a practice" could be different from retiring. For example, when asked if they intend to retire in three years or less because of insurance costs, 21 percent of those surveyed said they would. In other words, a doctor could leave Ohio - which would mean closing their practice - but not retire. Nonetheless, both closing a practice and retiring would limit patient access, association officials said.

Mr. Collier sarcastically asked if he should check back with the association in two or three years to see if the state really has lost a third or more of its physicians. He said he's sympathetic to doctors' plight, but said there's no proof that the number of physicians is declining overall.

The malpractice commission's chairman praised the association's survey.

"I am not surprised by the numbers. I have talked with doctors across the state and increasingly we have begun to document doctors who are leaving or say they will leave in the near future," said Ann Womer Benjamin, who's also director of the Ohio Department of Insurance.

The association did a random survey of 4,000 physicians in the state, not just its own members.

The release of the survey comes at an opportune time for the association. On Monday, Ms. Benjamin's commission is meeting again to discuss malpractice premiums. The state passed a tort reform bill last year that limits damages awarded in malpractice cases.

Doctors say high jury awards are causing pSurvremiums to go up not just for doctors with no, or few, lawsuits, but for all doctors. In the association's survey, 48 percent said they hadn't been sued in the last 10 years, 37 percent said they'd been sued once or twice, 11 percent said they'd been sued three or four times, and 4 percent reported five or more suits.

Excessive lawsuits have caused, physicians argue, doctors to retire early or no longer perform high-risk procedures, such as delivering babies. Specialists have seen the largest premium increases in recent years.

Mr. Collier said the assertion that malpractice lawsuits in Ohio are increasing is "fiction," and the data show no increase.

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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