By Mary E. Alexander, Past President of ATLA and William B. Richardson, Jr., President of WVTLA
The stories being written in some newspapers are alarming: Doctors leaving their practices because they can't afford to pay their medical malpractice insurance premiums. But is there really a mass exodus, as some of these news reports have portrayed? Or, have we not yet heard both sides of the story?
Many of these stories have emerged in states where legislatures are considering laws to limit patient rights through medical malpractice "reform." But consumer advocates say that patients need to know that, while the word "reform" sounds positive, the results of medical malpractice "reform" laws typically mean that patients have less chance of receiving the help they will need if they are injured by a medical mistake.
In states where legislatures are the targets of these lobbying campaigns, such as Mississippi, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, reporters have investigated the anecdotes about doctors leaving their practices and discovered they are unfounded.
In Mississippi, The (Biloxi) Sun Herald reported, that while there continue to be claims that doctors are leaving their practices, "So far, the numbers don't bear that out." The newspaper reported that the state gained 564 doctors over the past five years, and that "[o]nly four states have grown faster in physician population: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota."
In West Virginia and Pennsylvania, medical and insurance lobbyists testified before state legislatures that doctors fled those states because they were forced to pay high medical malpractice insurance premiums. But a Pennsylvania state agency census and a West Virginia newspaper investigation found the opposite was true.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "[Doctors] claim huge premiums are driving many physicians out of the state, particularly high-risk specialists.... But the most recent count of doctors in the state tells a different story.... In fact, the [state agency] census of Pennsylvania doctors shows the number grew."
The West Virginia Gazette reported, "The number of doctors in West Virginia has increased yearly, contrary to reports by the state Medical Association that doctors are fleeing the state in reaction to medical malpractice costs."
Further, Dr. Anthony Robbins, a physician who headed the state health departments of Colorado and Vermont and oversaw programs addressing recruitment and retention of rural doctors, says, "The difficulty in recruiting talented physicians to serve in rural areas is a nationwide problem.... It is a continuing problem and one that has nothing to do with changes in malpractice premiums."
According to Robbins, physicians have left rural areas "for decades," and have done so "regardless of medical malpractice insurance crises and regardless of tort "reform" statues.
He cites a government report on the status of the physician workforce in America when he says, "shortages in the number of rural physicians nationwide are due to...[social and professional] isolation, the lack of hospitals and medical technology, and a desire for greater affluence."
And a survey by the Center for Research in Ambulatory Health Care Administration found that medical malpractice premiums are not cited by doctors as a reason to leave their practices. Instead, the survey found that spouse and family issues are the number one reason rural doctors leave their practices.
What is the case in your state? You may not really know until a reporter there investigates.
Mary E. Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), is a founding partner in the San Francisco law firm of Mary Alexander and Associates, P.C.
William B. Richardson, Jr. is a partner in the law firm of Richardson & Campbell in Parkersburg, West Virginia and is President of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
For more health and safety information and tips, please visit ATLA's "Keep Our Families Safe" Web site at http://www.atla.org/public/index.aspx.
WVAJ AFFINITY PARTNERS