New Data Shows Worsening Med-Mal Crisis in Fla.

January 2, 2003

Floridians’ ability to obtain healthcare services is being disrupted statewide as hospitals are forced to close units or reduce services due to the medical liability insurance crisis, new information shows.

The erosion of hospital services is not limited to one particular region, but rather is impacting institutions from the Panhandle to South Florida, and in urban and rural settings.

For example, seven hospitals to date – ranging from Parkway Regional Medical Center in North Miami Beach to South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center – have closed their obstetrics units in the past year due to insurance concerns, and four other hospitals have reduced or limited obstetrics services.

Meanwhile, Tallahassee Community Hospital has closed its mammography unit due to insurance concerns, and four other hospitals report they have reduced mammography services. Orlando Regional Healthcare System said the average wait time for women seeking a mammography has risen from 20 days in 2000 to 150 days in 2002 as radiologists leave the business because they can’t find or afford insurance.

The 230-member Florida Hospital Association is gathering the information based on reports from individual hospitals. Association officials cautioned that the results are not all-inclusive, but are merely a portrait of how patient care at hospitals is being impacted by the crisis, because many hospitals are still reporting issues.

“This is just a snapshot of what’s happening, but it clearly shows that the medical liability crisis is forcing hospitals across the state to stop offering or to curtail healthcare services that Floridians need,” Wayne NeSmith, president of the Florida Hospital Association, said.

“The frightening thing is that we’re certain more hospitals are facing these kinds of difficult decisions,” NeSmith added. “This is not a situation that our state’s policymakers can allow to fester much longer. As we’ve said, Florida’s excessive liability system needs a legislative fix now.”

The Florida Hospital Association is spearheading the Coalition to Heal Healthcare in Florida, a broad alliance of more than 100 medical and business groups. The coalition believes Florida’s excessive and unpredictable medical liability litigation system has fueled the current crisis.

The coalition has offered the Florida Legislature a series of reforms to resolve the crisis that covers three areas – defining more clearly reasonable parameters for litigation and compensation to injured patients, providing for a stable insurance market, and improving patient safety.

The current crisis manifests itself in several ways for Florida’s hospitals, all of which ultimately impact patients.

Hospitals have seen their liability premiums rise an average of 140 percent over two years, meaning there’s less money available for new services or equipment to treat patients. Hospitals face the prospect of closing units, or limiting services, because of a declining number of doctors available to perform certain procedures. Across the state, thousands of doctors have reported that they are retiring early, closing or limiting their practices, or leaving Florida because liability insurance is either unavailable or unaffordable.

The Florida Hospital Association found that on-call specialty coverage for hospital emergency rooms is being hit especially hard by the crisis. For example, Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville has eliminated neurosurgery in its emergency room, and nine other hospitals are considering similar action. Three other hospitals – Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach, Community Hospital in New Port Richey and Parkway Regional Medical Center in North Miami Beach – said they have eliminated hand surgery in their emergency rooms, and six other hospitals said they might do the same.

Hospitals also indicated that patients are being forced to travel longer distances for care due to the curtailment of services. Aventura Hospital & Medical Center in Aventura reported that more than 900 patients a year are being transferred to facilities outside the community for treatments. Glades General Hospital in Belle Glade said it is forced to transfer 100 to 200 patients a year to other facilities in the county.

“This crisis is not insurmountable,” NeSmith remarked. “Fair reform that protects injured patients, while protecting healthcare for all of us, is within our reach if we work together. We’re ready to work with state lawmakers and other affected parties to bring fairness back to the system.”

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