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December 3, 2009 - Malpractice System Turmoil: NY Senate Leaders Promise Rate Reform Next Year

New York's ailing malpractice system is back on the operating table.

Senate leaders at a hearing Tuesday promised that skyrocketing malpractice premiums will be addressed with a long-term solution in the next legislative session despite years of disagreement and Band-Aid fixes that froze malpractice premiums for the past two years.

"We will refuse this year to accept anything other than a resolution to what is before us," said Sen. Neil D. Breslin, D-Bethlehem, chairman of the Senate Committee on Insurance.

Since 2002, the average payout for medical liability claims has increased from $382,000 to $505,000 in 2008, according to the Medical Society of the State of New York.

In 2008, New York had the highest number of paid claims (1,373) than any other state, including 50 percent more than Florida and California.

But those figures contradict information for the National Practitioner Data Bank, a database to which doctors and hospitals are federally required to report malpractice payments.

Malpractice judgments and settlements reported to the database dropped from $822 million in 2006 to $743 million in 2008, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Medical Consumers.

Yet malpractice premiums in New York have been increasing. Obstetricians have been hardest hit with premiums rising 68 percent between 2002 and 2008. An OB/GYN in the New York City area pays about $170,000 annually, while an upstate obstetrician pays $53,000.

Several task forces have been convened to address the rising premiums, but they failed to find a resolution because of friction between the medical community and trial lawyers. The Legislature froze premiums for the past few years to protect doctors.

Leaders in the medical community want to change the way the legal system works by instituting caps on non-economic jury awards, special courts for malpractice claims, protection of doctors' personal assets, no-fault funds for babies born with neurological impairments, prescreening of lawsuits to eliminate frivolous suits, and legal immunity for doctors who apologize to patients.

Trial lawyers said the focus should be on reducing medical errors, improving patient safety and removing bad doctors.

"Seven percent of physicians are responsible for 68 percent of medical malpractice payments" in New York, said an Albany malpractice attorney who represents the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Those doctors should not be eligible for liability insurance and should be denied the privilege of practicing medicine, he said.

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