In Search of a Cure; Medical Malpractice Has Doctors Practicing Politics

Article excerpt

Byline: Sarah Skidmore, Times-Union business writer

Physicians are coming out of their offices and into politics, picketing and protesting and pulling for medical malpractice reform.

"It's just not part of our culture -- it's our greatest deficit and our greatest asset as well," said James Dolan, president of the Florida Medical Political Action Committee and treasurer of the Duval County Medical Society. "You have doctors who've traditionally said this is not my role. My primary concern is as a patient advocate.

"Now this is part of doing that."

Florida doctors, some of the most injured by the national malpractice crisis, have become more of a potent political force to drive change. Because of staggering malpractice insurance rate increases, physicians are limiting their services, closing their practices or leaving the state. As a result, patient access to care is already shrinking, and health care costs are rising as a result. Physicians are pushing for legislative change to keep the problem from spiraling further.

Health care's political influence was most evident during the recent elections. The Florida Medical Political Action Committee had about a 98 percent success rate in getting the candidates it supported into office. Donations to the PAC have increased by 30 to 40 percent over last year, said Dolan.

The push toward politics is hardly local. The American Medical Association set out to earn $15 million -- its largest ever for a specific cause -- to support reform.

Protests are common around the country. And in Florida, the Florida Medical Association said two notable rallies, in Orlando and West Palm Beach made an impact. The FMA is planning another for March, but haven't selected a site. Many doctors feel it's important to leave their practices temporarily to show up at the capital in a mass of white lab coats.

Legislators say malpractice is going to be the hot topic for the coming year as rates continue to skyrocket.

Doctors and hospitals are pushing primarily for tort reform to limit awards given in malpractice cases for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. The insurance companies support it as well because their once profitable business is weak.

First Professionals Insurance Co., a Jacksonville-based liability insurer, recently said that on average, medical malpractice insurers are paying out $1.53 for every premium dollar they bring it. The majority of insurers have left Florida, and few of those remaining are writing new business.

While many agree change is needed, they disagree on the remedy.

Doctors, hospitals and insurers face a political obstacle from the state's influential trial attorneys, who oppose such reforms, saying the fault lies with the insurance companies' management and doctors' poor medical care. …

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