ATLANTA - Firing the first shot in what promises to be a major fight, doctors from across Georgia marched on the Capitol on Friday, demanding legal reforms to curb soaring malpractice insurance rates.
"All of us know fellow physicians who have opted for retirement, restricted their practices or relocated because they can't afford rising liability insurance premiums," Dr. Lawrence Sanders, an associate dean at Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine, told a crowd of about 1,800 just outside the Capitol. "This effort is essential to assure that all Georgians have access to safe, affordable, high-quality health services."
Friday's rally came on the first day members of the General Assembly could pre-file legislation for the 2003 session.
Supporters of legal reform expect to have a bill ready by the end of this month, said David Cook, the executive director of the Medical Association of Georgia, which co-sponsored the march along with the Georgia Hospital Association.
Among other things, the measure is expected to call for a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering. Medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors and hospitals have skyrocketed during the past several years, outstripping the rate of inflation and the even steeper rise in other types of medical costs.
Georgia is among a dozen states identified by the American Medical Association as suffering the largest increases.
Representatives of the insurance industry and medical groups blame the growing number of malpractice lawsuits and the increasing size of jury awards.
But plaintiffs' lawyers say insurance companies are jacking up premiums to make up for their efforts to undercut one another during a price war in the booming 1990s. The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association is expected to spearhead opposition to the reform bill.
Doctors and hospital officials who attended Friday's rally described a variety of ways the increases are being felt. Dr. Cynthia Mercer, an obstetrician in Athens, said a recent survey found that about half of the more than 800 obstetricians across the state will make some changes in their practices during the coming year because of rising malpractice premiums.
She said they will either retire, stop practicing obstetrics, cut staff or limit high-risk procedures.
"The easiest thing a practitioner can do is cut high-risk obstetrics," Dr. Mercer said. "That cuts access to the under-served and underinsured population."
Oliver Booker, the CEO of Bacon County Hospital in Alma, said his board voted to cancel the small rural facility's coverage temporarily after the annual premium skyrocketed from $118,000 in 2000 to $385,000 last year. Board members balked when they were quoted a rate of $723,000 for 2002, he said.
"My board and I decided that wasn't a good business decision," he said. "We don't have that kind of cash flow."
Mr. Booker said the hospital was able to find less-expensive coverage later, but it has far less protection. Past efforts to pass legal liability reforms have been nonstarters in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
But reform supporters are optimistic that Republican Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue and the new Senate GOP majority will be sympathetic to their cause.
But Mr. Cook said there are no guarantees.
"I think it's going to be a tough battle," he said. "We're going to give it our best shot."
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