Originally created 04/23/98

Malpractice costs may be going up



COLUMBIA -- The state fund that covers large malpractice claims has been so weakened by large verdicts that many of South Carolina's health-care professionals will be hit with sharply higher bills to buy coverage.

For the first time, the South Carolina Patients' Compensation Fund, which covers some malpractice claims, will require 8,300 doctors, nurses and hospitals to pay double their premiums this year.

"They're not going to like it, but they have to," said Dr. Tucker Weston, a Columbia physician and chairman of the board that governs the fund. "You've got to be covered to practice."

The fund pays damages in malpractice cases where the amounts top $100,000. Even with the double premiums, it is much less expensive than private insurance, Dr. Weston said.

Trouble began a few years ago when the fund's assets began dropping. Assets of $27 million in 1995 declined to $19 million in 1996 and $13 million in 1997. By the end of March, the fund had $10.5 million.

"We've had some high verdicts," Dr. Weston said, "much higher than the routine ones and unexpectedly."

He said the problem is one of courts adding punitive damages to actual damages, driving up the amounts.

Judgments also accrue 14 percent interest from the time of the verdict until it is paid. That means the costs grow even more if the case is appealed, he said.

A lawsuit against Dr. Rajko Medenica of Hilton Head Island put a huge dent in the fund when a 1995 jury awarded $14 million to those suing the controversial cancer doctor. The fund does not have the legal ability to sue a doctor to recover some of the money, Dr. Weston said.

The agency hopes to raise $8 million from the notice going out to members Friday telling them about the fee increase.

The fund's executive director, Cal Stewart, said the fees vary by the type of practice the doctor has or the types of procedures performed. A registered nurse might pay as low as $65 a year, while a neurosurgeon pays $5,866, he said.