Docs Protest

  1. Doctors to protest insurance rates
    Physicians to rally outside 2 hospitals Monday against skyrocketing malpractice coverage costs they say are forcing physicians out of the state.
    Friday, April 19, 2002

    ALBANY -- As many as 200 doctors plan to rally outside Staten Island's two biggest hospitals Monday, calling for an end to skyrocketing malpractice coverage costs they say are forcing physicians out of the state........

    In an effort to draw attention to the issue of rising insurance rates, the doctors will gather at Staten Island University Hospital, Ocean Breeze, and St. Vincent's Medical Center, West Brighton, at noon, said Dr. Neil Nepola, president of the Richmond County Medical Society.
    "We need liability insurance change in order to maintain the physicians in our state," Dr. Nepola said in a phone interview, "and to continue to carefully care for the patients, so doctors can get back to the business of medicine, instead of worrying about being sued."

    Dr. Nepola said the rally, which coincides with similar protests across the state, would summon at least 20 doctors and might reach 200. There are about 1,000 physicians on Staten Island, some 500 belonging to the medical society, he said.

    The top gripe named by Dr. Nepola, who maintains a New Dorp family practice, was malpractice liability costs. He and other physicians support legislation that would cap now-unlimited "pain and suffering" malpractice suits at $250,000 -- an outcome he said would reduce doctors' medical liability costs by 25 percent.

    The medical society quoted statistics published in a legal journal last year that state the average malpractice award rose from $1.7 million in 1994 to $6 million in 1999. The statistics note New York state's 2000 total of $633 million in medical malpractice payments was "far and away" the nation's highest, coming in at 80 percent above the second contender, Pennsylvania.

    "At some point, a health-care crisis will occur because there will be fewer and fewer physicians practicing medicine, because of prohibitive costs," said Dr. Theodore Strange, a Prince's Bay-based internist affiliated with Staten Island University Hospital.

    A doctor's individual malpractice costs can exceed $100,000, an "expense right off the top" that hurts the physician's income, Dr. Strange said. While acknowledging incidents of malpractice should be covered, he said doctors "also need to be fairly protected" from noncritical claims or claims that are just too high.

    "This is not about a strike. This is about public awareness," Dr. Strange said of the purpose behind the rally. "Our expenses are outweighing our ability to practice in a way that's reasonable and fair."

    The rallying doctors also want to limit contingency fees lawyers can pocket when their clients win malpractice suits. Those fees, combined with the federal government's decision to reduce Medicare reimbursements to doctors who treat the elderly, has left doctors reeling, Dr. Nepola said.

    And if overall malpractice costs do not subside, Dr. Nepola predicted, doctors will start practicing medicine more defensively -- possibly subjecting patients to a multitude of unnecessary, costly tests to ward off potential malpractice suits.

    Legislation circulating in the Democratic-run state Assembly could open the door to more lawsuits against physicians by effectively eliminating the two-and-a-half year statute of limitations on malpractice cases. Its supporters say that in medical malpractice cases involving a misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose, the injury suffered by the patient is often not discovered until after the time limit has run out.

    For example, supporters of the legislation note a woman who received breast implants and later encountered problems could sue the manufacturers who made the device, but not the surgeon who implanted them, because the statute of limitations had expired.

    Physicians vehemently oppose the proposed measure, and it faces long odds of ever becoming law because it has no sponsor in the Republican-controlled state Senate. The legislation would have to pass the upper house to get to Republican Gov. George E. Pataki's desk.

    Legislation the doctors do support -- a proposal to cap "pain and suffering" liability at $250,000 -- is still circulating in the NY State Legislature but has not passed either house yet.
    The Staten Island Advacne>>
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