Bush Proposes Limits on Medical Malpractice Suits

Article excerpt

cf3cp8.5} N.Y. Times News Service President Bush sent a proposal to Congress earlier this month to limit medical malpractice lawsuits, accepting a recommendation that the American Medical Association had been pushing for five years. The association has said the limits work in California and has suggested that changes in the malpractice laws could ultimately reduce health-care spending. But lawyers who file the malpractice suits insist that the doctors have not proved their point. The California law sets a $250,000 ceiling on payments for "noneconomic losses" like pain and suffering, and it appears to have slowed the rise in the state's medical insurance premiums. But it has not been shown that the savings were passed along to patients and employers who pay medical bills. William K. Scheuber, president of Medical Underwriters of California, the managing arm of the doctor-owned insurance company Medical Insurance Exchange of California, cited the premiums for an obstetrician-gynecologist who bought $500,000 of coverage. The doctor paid $33,380 in 1991, compared with $11,380 in 1975, the year that California enacted the ceiling. The rates increased, on average, by only about 7 percent a year. In another example, premiums paid by general surgeons in California hovered around $20,000 from 1986 to 1988, while premiums for surgeons in Florida surged from $70,000 to $100,000. But Michael Maher, a lawyer in Orlando, Fla., who heads the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said there was no national pattern linking limits on malpractice awards with insurance rates, which have indeed been dropping nationally since 1988. He said premiums were reduced by 20 percent in 1989 in Maine, for example, before that state had passed malpractice limits, but in Louisiana, the rates continued to rise despite "significant limitations" on malpractice awards in that state. "I think the system is working," Maher said. "Doctors are being more careful. They are practicing a higher quality of medicine because of the tort system." Beth Hamel, a spokeswoman for the St. Paul Cos., the largest private malpractice insurer, said the company would "neither support nor oppose changes in the tort system," adding: "There are so many legal challenges to the laws and they change so frequently that it is hard to see any kind of pattern." She said the company, based in St. Paul, began cutting rates in 1988, as the amount and frequency of claims turned downward. …


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