Pointing to doctors who say the cost of practicing medicine in Rhode Island is becoming prohibitive, Gov. Don Carcieri has proposed capping the amount of money medical malpractice victims can receive for pain and suffering.
The governor’s proposed legislation would limit pain and suffering awards to $250,000, speed up the court process and lower interest rates on prejudgment awards.
“Doctors shouldn’t have to relocate their practice because the cost of doing business in Rhode Island is too steep,” Carcieri said.
The governor said Rhode Island doctors have seen their malpractice insurance premiums “skyrocket” and that many doctors have stopped performing certain procedures because insuring them is so expensive. Malpractice suits in Rhode Island take an average of more than six years to resolve, while the national average is less than five years, he said.
Carcieri, doctors and hospital administrators they fear that if Rhode Island’s medical malpractice laws are not fixed, physicians will leave the state, creating a shortfall of adequate health care.
Dr. Candace Dyer, of Kent County Memorial Hospital, said 10 years ago she was paying $20,000 a year for her insurance. No malpractice claims have been filed against her, but she tells The Providence Journal she now pays $44,000.
Dyer said doctors are forced to practice “defensive medicine,” which drives up costs. She orders extra ultrasounds and mammograms for her patients because she is “petrified of missing breast cancer” and being sued.
Carcieri’s bill would require that lawsuits must also be brought within three years of an act of malpractice. In cases where the damage is not immediately noticeable, suits must be filed within a year of the malpractice being discovered.
The Rhode Island Medical Society has introduced a nearly identical bill, which lacks the pain-and-suffering awards cap. The group’s lobbyist, Steven DeToy, said the lawyer-dominated General Assembly would never approve it.
Neither bill would cap awards for medical costs or for lost wages.
Marti Rosenberg, director of the advocacy group Ocean State Action, said the pain-and-suffering limit puts women, children and people with low incomes at a disadvantage. If awards are based only on lost income, then low earners can never be fully compensated.
It is not clear whether caps would lower the cost of insurance.
Carcieri cited data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing that states with caps have lower malpractice claims per physician, lower malpractice premiums, and lower average loss per physician.
But last June, Weiss Ratings Inc., a company that rates insurers’ financial health, said caps do not prevent sharp increases in medical malpractice premiums _ even though payouts were lower in states with caps.
Ralph Nader’s consumer protection group, Public Citizen, says the problem rests with the state’s medical licensing board. Since 1990, 4.8 percent of Rhode Island doctors were responsible for more than half of all malpractice payouts. The group said greater state oversight would reduce costs.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press
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