Ohio Director Tackles Med-Mal Crisis

January 26, 2004

Ohio Insurance Director Ann Womer Benjamin’s first year in office since her appointment by Republican Gov. Robert Taft has been marked principally by her efforts to get a handle on the state’s medical liability crisis. Womer Benjamin represented the 75th District (Portage County-Part) for four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives before she was appointed as the Buckeye state’s first woman insurance director.

Her background as an estate planning and probate lawyer and member of the Cleveland Bar Association wouldn’t seem to augur well for the chances of tort law changes favorable to the insurance industry, but the director has emerged as a forceful advocate for limiting the number of frivolous medical malpractice suits. She also supported legislation designed to counter the Ohio Supreme Court’s controversial Scott-Pontzer decision’s unsettling impact on the auto insurance market.

Womer Benjamin spoke on the telephone with Insurance Journal Midwest on the afternoon of a victory for the department in the Ohio House, which had just unanimously passed HB 282. In the event of a crisis in the availability of medical liability coverage, the bill would create a medical liability underwriting association (MLUA) funded with $12 million in seed money from a soon-to-terminate joint underwriting association.

The director spoke about Ohio’s medical liability market, credit scoring, homeowners, fraud, the challenges of her job and the prospect of federalization.

Insurance Journal: What would you say are the biggest achievements of your administration in the year since you were appointed?
Ann Womer Benjamin: In terms of accomplishments in my first year I certainly think [HB 282] is a top accomplishment. The medical malpractice situation in Ohio has been our top priority over the last year. There have been growing concerns about the availability of such coverage, not just affordability. Our amendments to House Bill 282 would do two things. First, it would steer $12 million from the terminating JUA and preserve that money for medical malpractice initiatives including new underwriting associations. Second, the bill would authorize the superintendent of insurance to establish a medical malpractice liability underwriting association by rule if an emergency in availability was a real problem. The bill passed the Ohio house unanimously, and now it’s on to the Ohio Senate.

IJ: What role did you have in pushing this bill forward?
Womer Benjamin: We went seriously to the committee just before Thanksgiving. We worked with the House Insurance Committee and with sponsor Rep. Larry Flowers [R-19th] and the committee chair to put the changes in place. We worked with the industry, the Ohio Medical Association and the Ohio Hospital Association. The bill will now go to the Senate. The Senate committee is chaired by Scott Nein [R-4th]. We’ve had conversations with Sen. Nein and the president of the senate to iron out any problems they may have in the Senate.

Did you have any problems on the House side before getting the unanimous passage?
Womer Benjamin: We worked very hard on the House end with interested parties to address all conceivable concerns. One of the issues with the establishment of an underwriting association is how such an entity should be funded. The $12 million will provide seed money for it being operational. Beyond that you need to charge premiums. We also wanted to be conservative in our approach and establish a stabilization reserve fund, to serve as backup revenue in the unlikely event that premiums for some reasons were inadequate. The method of funding that reserve fund was a subject of ongoing debate and discussion. The $12 million for medical malpractice initiatives could include a medical malpractice underwriting association — the MLUA may not be established if the market doesn’t worsen. If the $12 million were to be used for MLUA, it would provide initial financing and premiums paid by insureds would serve to pay off future claims and then assessments would be possible against the insured beyond the premium to fund the stabilization reserve fund.

Editor’s note: To read the rest of this exclusive interview with Director Womer Benjamin, read the Jan. 26 issue of Insurance Journal Midwest, which covers Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

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