More than 800 Florida doctors skip work over malpractice insurance costs

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 1:03 a.m.

WEST PALM BEACH - More than 800 doctors in Florida, and a dozen more in Mississippi, stayed off the job Monday to protest rising malpractice insurance costs.

Organizers of the protest in the Palm Beach County area 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. No immediate problems were reported.

"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 big 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.

"The quality of care for Floridians will be diminished if we don't deal with medical malpractice reform. In the long run, that's the issue," Bush said Monday.

Dr. Robert Cline, president of the Florida Medical Association, said that 130 patients received malpractice awards worth more than $1 million last year.

"So we're jeopardizing care for 16 million people in the state of Florida because of these 130 claims?" Cline said. "We're approaching Third World medicine where people are traveling 100 miles to get specialized care."

Since 1975, rates for professional liability insurance have increased fivefold across the nation. In comparison, rates for doctors in California, where reforms were passed in 1975, rose only 167 percent during the same period, Cline said.

Victims of medical malpractice, however, say the industry cannot 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 said they are 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?"

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said patients will continue to suffer if more doctors are forced to leave the state or retire early because high insurance rates make it impossible to continue their practices. Foley said he plans to push a House bill that would limit malpractice costs to doctors and cap some awards.

In Mississippi, a dozen surgeons took leaves of absence Monday from four Gulf Coast hospitals -- Memorial Hospital, Garden Park Medical Center, Gulf Coast Medical Center and Hancock Medical Center.

An agreement to keep a surgeon on call was scrapped after physicians concluded the plan could overload surgery units at those hospitals.

Gulfport and Harrison County earlier declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for ambulances to take patients to hospitals in neighboring Louisiana or Alabama. Hancock County followed their example Monday.

At least five patients were redirected to other hospitals, said Chris Cirillo, director of operations for American Medical Response ambulance service.

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove criticized Mississippi's Legislature for not taking action during a special session on tort reform last year.

"My plan included the creation of a compensation fund to address the immediate needs of health care providers and to ensure health care coverage for our people," he said.

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