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Doctors Ask To Practice Insurance-Free

Pr. George's Hospital Staff Anxious Over Liability Rates

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page B01

Doctors at Prince George's Hospital Center have voted unanimously to ask administrators to allow them to work without malpractice insurance coverage.

Members of the hospital's General Medical Staff, facing a 40 percent increase in malpractice insurance premiums next year, said that the rate hikes are making it too costly for them to continue to practice -- a sentiment expressed by doctors across Maryland as well as in other states, including Florida.

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The 100 doctors who voted Monday night said they see no choice except to consider canceling their medical malpractice insurance altogether. "This is a move of desperation," said Mark Seigel, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville and president of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society. "It's really a cry for help. . . . This has never happened before."

Prince George's Hospital Center officials said it was unlikely they would honor the doctors' request.

"We empathize with our doctors and understand how the issue is affecting them," said Bob Howell, a spokesman for Dimensions Healthcare System, the nonprofit group that runs the hospital in Cheverly. Howell said the hospital board will meet with its attorneys and administrators to "figure out how we can help them based on our own situation."

State lawmakers continue to debate how to address rising malpractice insurance rates. Yesterday, a state task force appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) met for the third time in hopes of crafting recommendations to ease the situation by November.

As a starting point, Ehrlich has asked the group to use elements of failed legislation from the last legislative session that sought to reduce payouts to those injured by doctors. To date, there has been little consensus among state leaders over how to proceed.

Michael Preston, executive director of MedChi, said that as rates increase, the idea of going without insurance is stirring among medical staffs in the state.

The general surgeons at Shady Grove Adventist took a similar vote about two weeks ago, Seigel said. They moved to ask administrators to allow them to practice without liability insurance and to not force them to cover the emergency room, where the risk of liability is high.

"This is a manifestation of the gravity of the problem," Preston said.

But Mark Cohen, a medical malpractice attorney in Baltimore who said his 2-year-old daughter died late last year after receiving a lethally high dose of potassium through an intravenous drip, termed the situation less dire than doctors are saying. He predicted that doctors will not follow through on their threat because they would lose their hospital privileges and contracts with health care plans.

"It's scare tactics," Cohen said. "I think what they want to do is generate sympathy, but they will just generate anger. It's a money issue. It's not that they're not making money. It's just that they aren't making enough money."

Willie Blair, a private trauma surgeon who is on call at Prince George's Hospital Center and has privileges to work at the hospital, said his malpractice premium this year was $108,000. Next year, it will jump to $151,200, he said.

Blair, who attended Monday night's meeting, said he is prepared to go "bare," which means he, instead of his insurer, would be responsible for court judgments and settlements if he is sued.

He said the doctors' vote is somewhat of a symbolic gesture. But he said he believes that many doctors, including him, will be pushed into canceling their coverage.

The doctors would not be in danger of losing their medical licenses because Maryland does not require proof of malpractice insurance. Without coverage, though, the doctors would force the hospital to suspend them or find some alternative to help the doctors get coverage.

Blair said he and other surgeons at Prince George's Hospital Center see about 2,500 patients a year. "Can you imagine what will happen with 2,500 patients?" he asked.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company