"The lawyers are running amok"

August 9, 2002

That was one gripe heard by our reporter as she joined a busload of New Jersey doctors for a rally to protest exorbitant malpractice premiums.

 

"The lawyers are running amok"

That was one gripe heard by our reporter as she joined a busload of New Jersey doctors for a rally to protest exorbitant malpractice premiums.

By Dorothy L. Pennachio
Senior Editor

Upwards of 3,000 physicians and patients, some with babies in tow, converged on the statehouse in Trenton, NJ, this summer. They'd boarded buses at 30 hospitals around the state and traveled to the capital to demand that legislators take action to resolve the state's malpractice crisis.

I rode one of those buses—from The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood—and the mood was an interesting mix: part '60s-era political activism and part rambunctious kids on an outing.

Like physicians in many other states, New Jersey's doctors are finding it nearly impossible to secure affordable malpractice insurance. While ob/gyns have been hit hardest, physicians in primary care and other specialties joined this ride to Trenton because their practices are on the line, as well.

But why were patients on the bus? Said Ingrid Pimley, who's expecting a baby in late October, "Some of my friends' doctors have stopped doing obstetrics because of what's going on. I decided it was important to show my support."

Every passenger on the bus was frustrated and angry. Skyrocketing premiums, often more than double the previous year's, are driving physicians out of business or out of state. Some will abandon obstetrics. Others may leave medicine altogether.

"The situation is intolerable," stormed Martin N. Hochberg. The director of the ob/gyn department at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood and in practice for 32 years, Hochberg stopped doing deliveries on April 1. "It got to the point where I didn't want to pay double premiums for the privilege of delivering babies," he said. In fact, New Jersey ob/gyns who deliver babies often pay triple or quadruple the malpractice premiums of those who practice only gynecology.

"Internists' rates are soaring, too," observed Victoria P. Perez, an internist at Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood. Perez's carrier, The MIIX Group (Medical Inter-Insurance Exchange of New Jersey), which insured more than a third of the state's doctors, is in big financial trouble and stopped renewing policies this month.

"We're up the creek," she said. "This financial crisis should not have to be our focus. I should be paying attention to what I'm trained to do—taking care of patients."

"The lawyers are running amok!" complained Joshua A. Weidman, an ob/gyn in Wyckoff. When his group renewed its malpractice policy in January, rates had increased by 120 percent.

"This crisis is having a devastating effect on medical education," he continued. "Who will want to venture into medicine? Fewer physicians will be trained, fewer residency programs will be filled, and the quality of health care will diminish."

Ridgewood ob/gyn Ruth J. Schulze, who helped organize the statehouse rally, quoted a colleague who told her, "I'll be netting only $20,000 more than my nanny this year. Is it worth it?"

Schulze continued, "One six-physician obstetrical group on this bus has to pay more than $100,000 per doctor in premiums. They can't make their office economy work."

"Medical malpractice is the galvanizing issue," said Irwin H. Berkowitz, a pediatrician who's been in practice in Woodcliff Lake for 26 years, "but it's really about business taking over medicine. The profession is supposed to be about having a relationship with the patient. That relationship is diminished by this system. The result is that the brightest and best won't go into medicine."

As we arrived in Trenton, my busmates put on their white coats and walked up to the statehouse steps to join the already chanting crowd.

The protesters' demands included: a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering, shortening the statute of limitations for suits against physicians, better control of the expert witness system, and a tribunal to review cases before they go to court.

 

Dorothy Pennachio. "The lawyers are running amok". Medical Economics 2002;15:60.