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Malpractice insurance fix needs more work

By Pa. Sen. Connie Williams

We haven’t done enough. During these dog days of August, your elected state representatives and senators should not be lured into complacency by thinking we have solved the medical malpractice insurance crisis.

Doctors are still being told their insurance policies will not be renewed. Doctors are still moving away, or planning to move away.

Access to high quality health care in Pennsylvania is still in danger.

I have received hundreds of letters, e-mails and telephone calls from doctors and patients pleading for help.

This spring the legislature passed a new law (Act 13) that offers some tort reform, abolishes the CAT Fund, lowers some premiums and strengthens patient safety measures. We also passed “The Fair Share Act,” which limits the liability for defendants found to be less than 60 percent liable for damages—to just their individual share of the liability. This act should have a particularly positive impact on hospitals that have been hit with $180 million in additional liability insurance premiums in the past year alone.

Regrettably, insurance companies seem to be responding by not renewing policies or by increasing prices dramatically.

Perhaps these laws will help in the long term. But what about now? We have given the insurance companies some of the tort reform that they have asked for. Now it is time for the insurers to do their fair share.

Why haven’t Governor Schweiker and the Insurance Commissioner been more aggressive on this issue? I understand that it was only recently that Insurance Commissioner Diane Koken wrote to the presidents of all property and casualty insurers encouraging them to increase their business in Pennsylvania. This is too little, too late. The Administration should have taken decisive steps months ago to ease this situation.

Over the last few years, several state lawmakers introduced bills to address the problem. In 1997, when I was a state representative, and again this year as a senator, I introduced legislation that would allow doctors to join together to negotiate fees and working conditions with insurers. Former Sen. Richard Tilghman introduced similar legislation. Many doctors believe that the current low rates of reimbursement, along with the rising costs of insurance, discourage the practice of medicine.

As a “band aid,” I have recently introduced legislation that would provide a 10 percent tax credit on the cost of professional liability coverage for doctors and for those hospitals that provide insurance for their own doctors. This would be in effect for only a few years, but hopefully could change the minds of some doctors who are planning to shut the doors of their practice or move out of state.

Long term, of course, our priority must be increased dialogue with and action by the insurers. The governor and his insurance commissioner must pay attention to this crisis in medical care. Writing letters may help, but face-to-face conversation is better.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians must continue to press their legislators and governor for change.

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