Virginia's insurance bureau, with an eye toward stiffer state regulation of liability insurance rates, will start a series of public meetings this month to explore just how scarce and costly coverage has become in some fields.

Information gathered at the public meetings will be examined to determine whether there is enough competition in fields where liability insurance is hard to find or prohibitively expensive, said Ken Schrad, a State Corporation Commission spokesman.

The meetings could lay the groundwork for requiring prior state approval of rates in problem areas, he added.

Currently, only medical malpractice insurance and workers compensation require prior approval, with all other rates left to the market, Schrad said.

Liability insurance problems have affected a wide range of leisure and work-related pursuits in the state, from delivering and caring for babies to driving a truck carrying hazardous waste.

Nurses practicing in the state were surprised this spring when they received $1,500 bills for malpractice insurance -- 26 times as high as last year's.

The nurses "are about a year behind the doctors" in their malpractice insurance crisis, said Steve Kaufmann, deputy commissioner of the state insurance commission. "We have doctors and nurses who are quitting. It's scary in the rural areas."

High diving boards at pools have all but disappeared because insurers tacked on fees of more than $2,000 last year for any board that is at least one meter high, according to pool managers.

"It's fair to say the traditional high dive is a dying animal. It's a dinosaur," said Nathan Collins, president of Crystal Aquatics, a Virginia pool management company. Of the 25 pools his company operates, only one paid a $2,500 additional fee to keep its high board, he said.

Family day care providers, who care for children in their homes, sometimes have been able to attach riders to their homeowners' insurance to cover the business, but in other cases have said they cannot get coverage to insure themselves against injuries to the children.

"If day care homes have a problem {getting insurance at affordable rates}, maybe there are not enough companies out there" offering coverage, Schrad said.

Prompted by Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, the General Assembly this year granted the State Corporation Commission and its insurance bureau new authority to review insurance company rate-making records.

Terry, arguing for stronger state control over liability insurance when little competition exists, said that national companies should not be able to justify high rates in Virginia with large losses they experienced elsewhere.

But state governments across the country have been trying to grapple with huge jumps in liability insurance costs, which insurance companies have blamed on large court awards for personal injuries. One attempt to contain costs has been legislated limits on the amount of money a plaintiff can get for noneconomic damages such as "pain and suffering."

Virginia and Maryland have both established a $350,000 ceiling on those awards, and the District held hearings last week on a proposed legislative package that includes the limit.

The first public meeting is to be held Tuesday in Roanoke, followed by meetings in Norfolk and Richmond. In Northern Virginia, a meeting will be held July 21 at Fairfax City Hall.