Cancer Victims Raising Money For Doctor's Insurance

WESTLAKE, Ohio (AP) - Cancer victims talked their suburban Cleveland doctor into delaying his retirement by quickly raising nearly $20,000 toward his doubled malpractice insurance bill.

The fund on behalf of Dr. Romeo Diaz, 60, passed $26,000 on Thursday, the second day of a drive led by Kathy Fritsch of Vermilion, a two-time breast cancer survivor and his patient. Diaz' annual malpractice insurance cost rose from $20,000 to $40,000 last year and doubled again this year.

Fritsch said the goal was to raise $40,000 by next Thursday when Diaz' $80,000 malpractice insurance payment is due.

She learned about Diaz' ordeal on Monday, when she went to have him check a breast lump that turned out to be benign fatty tissue.

Diaz wiped away tears as he said this would be his last week of work, with his retirement moved up because of rising malpractice insurance costs, Fritsch said.

"We're going to fight for all the doctors, it's not just our doctor," she said.

The issue of rising malpractice insurance costs has lined up the insurance industry against trial attorneys who represent people pressing malpractice claims.

Fritsch said she plans to lobby for a bill in Columbus to limit claims for malpractice pain and suffering to $300,000, a measure backed by the insurance industry. She said Diaz hasn't had a malpractice claim in 10 years.

Diaz, who had a full day of surgery in anticipation of his retirement, could not be reached Thursday at his office.

Steve Collier, a Toledo attorney and former president of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, said the increase in Diaz' insurance costs seemed unreasonable, depending on the doctor's malpractice claims. He said cancer-oncology was not an area marked by heavy malpractice claims.

Diaz said he was overwhelmed Wednesday when dozens of patients showed up to offer their support and launch the fund-raising drive.

Fritsch said contributions included a check for $11,000 from a person she declined to identify. Most contributions were in the $100, $200 and $500 range and some came from people who aren't patients of Diaz.

Diaz said his insurer, Professionals Advocate Insurance Co. based in Hunt Valley, Md., told him claims had risen in the area.

John Franklin, spokesman for the insurer, said he could not discuss Diaz' case specifically, but said the company's rates are approved by state regulators. He said the rates have increased "significantly" in recent years amid an increase in malpractice lawsuits.

Peter Weinberger, an attorney in Cleveland, questioned whether insurance companies had drawn down claim reserves and lost the money in the stock market decline. The state should investigate the issue, according to Weinberger, a trustee of trial lawyers' group.

"This crisis has occurred because of bad business decisions that insurance companies made six or seven years ago," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)