By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Several hundred doctors rallied in downtown Cleveland on Monday to protest malpractice lawsuits that they say are driving up medical malpractice insurance rates and driving doctors out of business.
Standing under a banner reading "Stop Lawsuit Abuse," Dr. Daniel McLaughlin, a vascular surgeon, said the state is facing "a crisis of medical care availability" due to the growth in malpractice lawsuits.
But citizen groups say the reports of rising jury verdicts are a ruse used by doctors and insurance companies to generate support for legislation to limit litigation against doctors and hospitals and limit the damages that juries can award to patients No one disputes that medial malpractice insurance rates are rising dramatically in the state.
Larry Lika, an orthopedic surgeon at Southwest General Medical Center in Middleburg Heights, said his premium went from $36,000 to $80,000 in one year.
"My insurance rates doubled and I never had a claim against me," he said.
Dr. Anne Cath, who has a private practice in internal medicine in Cleveland, said her malpractice rates jumped 350 percent this year.
"My overhead far exceeds my take-home pay," she said. Cath said she may have to move her practice to a city where insurance rates are lower so "I can afford to pay myself."
While rates are rising nationwide, Ohio has been particularly hard hit because several companies that used to provide malpractice insurance have gone bankrupt or left the market.
PIE Mutual Insurance Co. was the largest malpractice insurer in the state until it was taken over by state regulators in December 1997 and later liquidated. The head of the company later pleaded guilty to draining funds from the company to pay gambling debts and to contribute to politicians.
The St. Paul Companies, another major insurer in the state, quit the market in December. PHICO Insurance Companies, a Pennsylvania company that insured many Ohio doctors, was shut down by Pennsylvania regulators in February.
Insurance rates in the Cleveland area, which includes Akron, ranked in the top five in the nation for internal medicine and general surgery, according to a survey conducted in October by the Medical Liability Monitor.
Tim Maglione, spokesman for the Ohio State Medical Association, said companies get out of the business in part because of huge damages awarded by juries in malpractice claims.
"We've seen a pretty dramatic increase from 1999 to 2000 in the types of judgments that juries are rendering," Maglione said. The average jury award in a malpractice case rose from $700,000 in 1999 to $1 million in 2000, he said.
"That is totally untrue," said Joanne Doroshow, director of a New York-based advocacy group called the Center for Justice and Democracy said. She said those numbers come from voluntary reports of lawyers who want publicity for their victories. She said lawyers who lose liability claims are unlikely to respond to the survey.
"Every 10 years or so, the industry starts losing money in the stock market or on interest rates, and they respond by increasing premiums on doctors 100 or 200 percent," Doroshow said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with lawsuits."
Whatever the cause, doctors say the effect is that the quality of care for patients declines.
Susan Stephens, an orthopedic surgeon in private practice, said that as insurance rates rise, doctors have to see more patients to cover their overhead.
"You start spending less time with each patient to squeeze in more," she said, "Someone you would have spent 15 minutes with is now getting less of your time."
Edward Jackson Jr., former chief of staff at University Hospitals in Cleveland, said one of the doctors in his 20-physician private practice group has decided to retire at the end of the month rather than pay insurance rates that have doubled.
"He had 3,000 patients," Jackson said. "We all have full case loads. What we'll do with those patients, I don't know."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)