Courier News

Patient Advocates Take On Medical Society

Courier News — Wednesday, Aprl 30, 2003

By LILO H. STAINTON
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — A coalition of patient advocates blamed the Medical Society of New Jersey Monday for misrepresenting malpractice insurance problems, "bullying" physicians and patients into cooperation and "blackmailing" lawmakers to support a flawed proposal.

Consumers for Civil Justice director Peter Guzzo said the solution doctors seek – limiting payouts for pain and suffering lawsuit awards – would not result in lower malpractice insurance rates or better patient care.

The Medical Society's fight to secure such caps led doctors to exaggerate the scope of the crisis, Guzzo said, and patients and lawmakers were held hostage when physicians staged a work slowdown in February to underscore their plight.

"The Medical Society has bullied a whole host of people," Guzzo said, advocating instead for a solution supported by Assembly Democrats. "We're not trying to blackmail anyone. We're trying to present the facts as they are."

New Jersey Public Interest Research Group director Dena Mottola agreed: "They've blown the crisis way out of proportion."

Medical Society spokesman John Shaffer defended his organization, which represents about 8,000 of the state's 22,000 physicians. He said the problem had impacted thousands of Garden State doctors, pointing to studies that show high malpractice payouts as the root. It is doctors, not lobbyists like Guzzo, Shaffer said, who are "up to their arms in blood" protecting patients.

"We're fighting for physicians' careers and we are fighting for patients, because we exist for nothing else but our patients," Shaffer said. "If they were true patient advocates they would be advocating for greater access to health care, not greater access to the court system."

Monday's Statehouse press conference – hosted by a half-dozen patient and consumer advocacy groups – was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the best way to curb rising medical malpractice insurance rates, which doctors say are driving them out of state. A plan supported by physicians passed the Senate in February; members of the Assembly – which has opposed limiting lawsuit awards – will discuss that Senate plan Thursday.

That proposal calls for limiting to $300,000 the amount a doctors' insurance would pay for pain and suffering. An additional $700,000 could be provided to victims from a state-run fund that would tax doctors, lawyers and health insurance providers.

The amount malpractice victims could recover in actual cost – like medical bills and lost wages – would not be affected by the proposal.

Advocates, like AARP state president Marilyn Askin, said the limit would harm elderly victims, the poor and children, who can't collect lost wages and other damages. They prefer a proposal by Assembly Democratic leaders that would use about $30 million collected from doctors, lawyers and health insurance plans to provide immediate subsidies to doctors hardest hit by the crisis, like obstetricians and neurologists.

"Patients' access to the courts for doctor negligence is a right, not a burden, and we must guarantee that patients are given quality health care," said Ev Leibman of New Jersey Citizen Action.

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