Md. Insurer Raises Rates for 6,000 Doctors

November 16, 2004

In what state legislators call a looming medical malpractice insurance crisis, the debate has focused on trial lawyers and incompetent doctors.

Less attention has been paid to the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, whose rate increases for 6,000 doctors have some saying they’ll close their offices.

Medical Mutual is suffering from a surge in malpractice payouts, but it’s not clear what’s causing the surge, how severe the problem is, or whether Med Mutual’s business practices are contributing to it, The (Baltimore) Sun reported Sunday.

“Doctors are in a very severe crisis,” said David Murray, Med Mutual’s chief executive officer. “The legal system is eating them alive.”

A review by The Sun found that while the debate over malpractice reform often focuses on “runaway” juries, juries rarely decide malpractice cases. Only three of the 20 million-dollar payouts by Med Mutual last year were jury awards.

Ninety percent of Med Mutual’s claims are settled out of court. The company settles for about the same amount on average as it pays in cases that go before juries. Whether it takes a case to a jury trial or not, most of the time Med Mutual wins and pays nothing.

Med Mutual has added hundreds of doctors to its rolls in recent years. But it hasn’t verified whether they have histories of repeated malpractice claims. State regulations make it tough for an insurer to drop bad doctors once it has accepted them.

While malpractice claims payouts rose sharply last year, after being relatively stable the previous few years, there’s no way to know whether that will continue or level off.

While critics argue that the company could charge doctors less, the insurer says it’s being prudent in setting aside enough money to protect against future claims.

Doctors are furious at the rate increases, but many side with Med Mutual in blaming lawyers and juries for triggering a crisis. Lawyers typically get 40 percent of a malpractice award and can wind up with more for expenses.

“The problem lies in the trial lawyers taking too much money out of the system. The payouts have gone up astronomically,” said Dr. Karl Riggle, a Hagerstown general surgeon.

Several Washington County doctors are planning to cut back on their work Monday in protest of rising malpractice insurance rates. Riggle said some physicians are cutting back on their work this week so they can spend time lobbying and fighting for malpractice reform.

Other doctors will cover for them, lessening the effect of the shortage, he said.

Also, physicians at Prince George’s Hospital Center will halt most elective surgeries, beginning Monday, said Chief of Staff Dr. Willie Blair.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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