Doctors, patients rally on opposite sides of malpractice bill

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Hundreds of doctors -- many wearing white lab coats and sporting campaign buttons -- gathered Wednesday at the Statehouse to protest the rising cost of malpractice insurance.

The doctors are supporting a Republican-backed bill that would cap jury awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases. Doctors say large jury verdicts and frivolous lawsuits are driving up their costs for insurance.

Opponents of the bill say insurance companies are raising prices to make up for stock market losses.

Mansfield surgeon Robert Maxwell said his insurance premium jumped from $100,000 to more than $300,000 this year.

"We all honestly believe frivolous lawsuits and huge awards for pain and suffering have made this malpractice problem what it is," Maxwell, 38, said as the rally began.

Doctors and supporters filled more than half the lawn on the west side of the Statehouse, an unusually large event for a legislative issue. At least 2,000 people attended, according to the State Highway Patrol.

Surgeon Jean Starr said her insurance went up 100 percent this year, to more than $200,000.

"We want to be there for our patients and it's making it difficult to do that," said Starr, 39, of Columbus.

More than 75 victims of malpractice, their family members and attorneys held a counter rally. They oppose the bill and want reform of the insurance industry instead.

"Unless you can cap expenses, you can't really cap the amount you receive," said Debbie Morris, 43, of St. Paris in western Ohio.

Morris uses a medical malpractice settlement to pay the $3,000 in monthly medical bills for her 21-year-old daughter, Abby, injured after brain surgery five years ago.

Several doctors wore buttons supporting Republican candidates for two Ohio Supreme Court races. Many are upset by a 1999 court ruling that threw out limits on jury awards as unconstitutional.

Supporters of the bill say it is needed to reduce skyrocketing premiums that could force some doctors out of business. The legislation, which would cap awards for pain and suffering at $300,000, is modeled after a 1975 California law.

Trial lawyers opposing the bill say bad doctors and insurance companies trying to recoup stock market losses are responsible for rising premiums, not jury awards.

Ohio is one of 12 states the American Medical Association has identified as being in crisis because rising medical malpractice rates are reducing patients access to health care.

"You can't lose sight of the fact it's a very bad situation for doctors and health providers," said Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University.

On the other hand, people shouldn't forget that the legal system "does compensate innocent victims who have suffered tremendously from avoidable, unreasonable mistakes doctors and others have made," Mehlman said.

The U.S. House in September passed a measure to cap the pain-and-suffering damages that juries may award in medical malpractice suits at $250,000.

In Nevada, a new law that went into effect earlier this month caps pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000. The law exempts cases of gross malpractice and those in which a judge finds clear and convincing evidence to warrant a higher award.

In Pennsylvania, the Senate unanimously approved a bill this month to eliminate "venue shopping," which refers to victims and lawyers seeking courts that are most likely to favor their cases.

The law requires victims to file lawsuits in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred.

The 12 crisis states identified by the American Medical Association: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

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