Vt. Doctors Call for Med-Mal Action

By | May 16, 2005

Sharp increases in medical malpractice insurance premiums are prompting Vermont doctors to call for the Legislature to limit payouts in malpractice lawsuits and take other steps to rein in costs.

“While medical malpractice insurance rates in Vermont have been increasingly rapidly, so far we have not been classified as a medical liability crisis state,” said Rep. Harry Chen, D-Mendon and an emergency room physician. “But with this latest rate hike, it looks like we are facing a real emergency.”

The state Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration recently approved a round of rate increases for the largest provider of medical malpractice insurance in Vermont, Medical Mutual Insurance Co. of Maine.

The average increase in rates was about 20 percent; the highest in any specialty was in Chen’s specialty of emergency care: 70 percent.

The Vermont Medical Society, which organized the news conference, is backing legislation to try to stem the rising cost of malpractice insurance. Chen acknowledged that at this late stage in the legislative session, there is little likelihood a bill will pass before next year.

Such measures around the country and at the federal level often have pitted doctors against lawyers who say patients harmed by physicians deserve to be compensated.

Thomas Zonay, president of the Vermont Bar Association, said Friday the lawyers’ group had not yet taken a position on the legislation.

“What we have done is taken steps to attempt to foster and promote a dialogue on the subject,” Zonay said. He said the VBA has a representative on a special state panel studying malpractice costs.

Chen, primary care physician Dr. Peter Dale, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Glen Neale and surgeon Dr. David Butsch gathered outside the emergency room at Central Vermont Hospital to voice their concerns.

The doctors said worries about malpractice claims are driving up the cost of health care via more than just premium increases. They said many doctors have stepped up the practice of “defensive medicine,” ordering tests and other procedures they might notbelieve were medically necessary just to try to stave off lawsuits.

Others have retired or stopped practicing in riskier specialties like obstetrics, meaning patients have to travel longer distances to get those kinds of care, Neale said.

The doctors said the cost of malpractice insurance has been going up not because of growing numbers of suits against Vermont doctors, but because of the growing size of settlements and jury verdicts.

The legislation supported by the Medical Society contains several provisions designed to get a handle on medical malpractice costs. Among them:

• It would cap non-economic _ usually pain and suffering _ damages in malpractice cases at $250,000.

• It would call for mandatory arbitration of malpractice cases in an effort to avoid the costs of going to trial.

º It would allow doctors to apologize to patients or family members without that apology being used against the physician in court.

• It would tighten qualifications for expert witnesses in malpractice cases.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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