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A state Senate committee last Monday approved a measure that would create a fund, financed by surcharges on lawyers and health professionals, to help doctors to defray the cost of sharply rising medical malpractice insurance premiums. The measure, S-50, approved by the Senate Health Committee, would impose a $75 annual tax on lawyers, doctors and chiropractors – higher than the $50 tax the Assembly approved a week earlier. In addition, employers would pay a tax of $3 per employee. Under both versions of the bill, the assessments would expire in three years. The proposed surcharges are intended to raise $80 million to $90 million over three years, but state financial officers told the committee Monday that a fee of $50 a year would raise just over $70 million. The amended legislation, which would raise about $26 million a year, calls for $17 million to go to physicians and $6.9 million to hospitals to help defray increasing malpractice insurance premiums. Another $1 million would go toward forgiving student loans by newly graduated physicians entering high-risk fields, such as obstetrics and gynecology. The remaining money would be used to encourage low-income families to enter the state-run insurance program. The proposed increase in surcharges for lawyers, doctors and chiropractors came despite the protests of the State Bar Association, which called it unfair to impose a charge on all lawyers when only a few handle medical malpractice cases. “While we recognize that access to competent medical care throughout the state is an issue of critical importance to the Legislature . . . we oppose a legislative scheme that seeks to shift the burden of providing a financial solution for doctors from state government to the private bar,” said Richard Steen, chairman of the Bar’s Task Force on Medical Malpractice. “There is simply no relationship between the overwhelming majority of attorneys who will be assessed under the bill and medical malpractice issues,” he said. In a separate letter to lawmakers, State Bar President Karol Corbin Walker suggested that doctors’ insurance woes could be due not to an increase in medical malpractice litigation but to bad business decisions by their malpractice carriers during sluggish economic times. She noted an Administrative Office of the Courts report that medical malpractice filings in 2002 fell to 1,656 from 1,776 the year before and that such cases amount to less than 2 percent of all civil filings. The Senate is scheduled to vote today on the amended bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. If it passes, the Assembly must reconsider it.

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