About 33,000 physicians who want help paying for medical malpractice insurance have applied for a piece of a $220 million state subsidy in Pennsylvania that will be largely funded by cigarette taxes increased in December.
Not all of those physicians will qualify — information submitted by about 2,600 was still incomplete — and it’s unclear whether the number will increase.
The Department of Insurance continues to get telephone calls from physicians who say that they weren’t aware of the Feb. 15 deadline to receive a rebate on their 2003 insurance bill, spokeswoman Rosanne Placey said.
“This is basically a snapshot of what’s happening in the here and now,” Placey said. “Will this change? It could.”
While the actual number of doctors in Pennsylvania has become a politically charged issue, the department cautioned that these numbers should not be used as an accurate count. Some doctors may not have applied for the insurance rebate because they did not know about it, or on principle, or for any other reason, Placey said.
“We don’t have any indication of what those numbers might be,” Placey said.
No accurate count of the number of practicing physicians is available, although the number of physicians paying their share of the state-run catastrophic insurance fund rose from about 34,000 in 1998 to more than 35,000 in 2002.
The latest report comes amid a furious debate in Harrisburg over who or what is to blame for the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance that physicians say is driving them out of business or out of the state.
‘”We’re definitely concerned about the supply and demand of health care,” said Chuck Moran, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
Rendell last year proposed a $220 million bailout for 2003 and another one for 2004. To pay the lion’s share of the insurance subsidy, lawmakers in December approved a 25-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes sold in Pennsylvania.
The size of the subsidy is about 1 percent of the entire state budget.
Physicians have lobbied hard in Harrisburg for their main priority, seeking an amendment to the state Constitution to restrict the amount that juries can award for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. The House and the Senate have not agreed on a bill.
In the meantime, lawmakers say that other changes made in the past two years have resulted in a 33 percent drop in the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed last year compared with the number filed the previous year, which could mean lower insurance costs in the coming years.
Key changes, lawmakers said, included a 2002 law ending the practice of “venue shopping,” in which attorneys could move cases to the county in which they considered a favorable jury verdict most likely.
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