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Doctors' Walkout In South Texas

Doctors in the Rio Grande Valley are blaming skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates on the region's litigious climate and record of large jury awards.

To protest premiums that have doubled, tripled or in some cases quadrupled, hundreds of them were closing their offices Monday and planning a mass rally at the Hidalgo County courthouse.

"Being sued is part of practicing medicine in South Texas. I have heard that same statement from lawyer friends of mine," Dr. Bradley Nordyke said. "One said, 'Don't take it personal, it's just part of business.' I'm sorry, but I do take it personal. Plus, I have to worry about losing everything I've worked for."

Up the coast in Nueces County, where 63 percent of doctors have had claims filed against them in the last 13 years, doctors are planning simultaneous activities to show support.

Emergency services at hospitals will not be stopped.

"They see this as a plea for survival for doctors and patients," said Jon Opelt of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which helped organize and publicize the "day of awareness."

Critics of the walkout say doctors are being misled by groups backed by big business and seeking limits on jury awards. They say there's no guarantee insurance companies will pass savings from such limits onto policy holders. Meanwhile, they say, tort reforms give patients less recourse against medical errors that kill more people than car accidents, cancer or AIDS.

"Instead of marching on a courthouse, turning their backs on patients, they ought to be marching on the governor's office and joining with constituents to try to do something about skyrocketing insurance rates," said Craig McDonald, director of the lobbying group Texans for Public Justice.

Both in Texas and nationwide, the insurance industry has been rocked by the stock market slide, Sept. 11 aftermath and lawsuit expenses.

Since 1999, seven of 17 malpractice insurance carriers serving Texas have either left or gone belly up, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

"Over the last couple of years, we have been paying out more in claims than we have taken in in premiums," said Julie Pulliam of the National Insurance Association. "Claim costs have gone through the roof. The primary reason is the cost of lawsuits. That's why insurers are very supportive of tort reform."

In parts of Florida, some doctors may pay more than $200,000 for coverage. West Virginia's governor called lawmakers into special session to devise affordable insurance options to keep doctors from leaving the state.

Kim Ross, a lobbyist with the Texas Medical Association, attributed the surging premiums to several factors.

"Lawyers need to accept their responsibility for their failure to police themselves and the insurance companies need to provide responsible pricing and underwriting accountability," Ross said. "It's an unsustainable trend and it's very, very dangerous to patient care."

Lawyers say doctors mistakenly believe that tort reforms limiting jury awards will lower their insurance premiums. They note that the New York-based Center for Justice & Democracy found that while insurance companies benefit by limitations on what juries can make them pay, the companies do not pass those savings on to customers.

"I really don't think it is a lawsuit problem. I think it's an insurance problem," McAllen attorney Albert Garcia said. "The public, if they're like me, doesn't like insurance companies and doesn't trust insurance companies. The companies know that and they have to blame someone and lawyers are easy to target."

Opelt of the lawsuit abuse organization blames lawyers for filing frivolous lawsuits, 86 percent of which result in no payment to the plaintiff. But awards that are granted in the Valley "tend to be considerably larger than state average," he said.

There are several theories why South Texas juries are so generous. The Valley is a geographically isolated region with large, young families and one of the poorest places in the nation. Large corporations are likely to be seen as distant big business with limitless wealth rather than mass employers.

According to the Texas Medical Liability Trust, Valley doctors are at least 10 percent more likely than doctors elsewhere in Texas to have a claim filed against them, and 20 percent more likely than doctors in most parts of the nation.

Cardiologist Carlos Chavez, 65, saw his premiums nearly double - from $42,000 last year to $76,000 this year. He says he is putting off retirement because he can't meet expenses.

"We have a lot of indigents, so we have to provide services free, so to speak. To me, it's paradoxical that those people who don't have money are the ones that are suing us, maybe because they want to get money," he said. "But that's not the way to get money, at our expense."

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