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Faced with a massive lobbying effort by doctors and insurers, consumer advocates and medical patients Monday launched a pre-emptive strike against tort reform. With the national momentum for tort reform and increased potential for major change in New York, lobbying forces on each side of the debate are primed for battle. Monday, the victims and consumer advocates made their pitch to the media. Today, the doctors and insurers are slated to make their latest lobbying push. Boiled down to its basics, the doctors and their allies contend that malpractice premiums are outrageously high due to excessive jury verdicts and greedy lawyers, and as a result, some specialists are fleeing New York and reducing health care options and opportunities for New Yorkers. On the other side, trial lawyers and consumer activists contend that if there is a malpractice crisis, the remedy is tighter control and discipline over bad doctors, and that increases in premiums are driven more by the sluggish economy in general than litigation. Both sides are competing feverishly for the ears of policymakers and the voice of the media. The annual Albany slugfest, which usually ends in a dead-heat, has taken on a new dimension this year, with President George W. Bush pushing hard for a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering, and New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Rensselaer, actively promoting comprehensive tort reform. While there remains considerable question as to whether the proposals now under consideration — such as limits on non-economic damages, shortened statutes of limitations and other measures designed to make it harder to initiate and prevail in a personal injury lawsuit — could ever clear the Democratic-controlled Assembly, observers agree that the current climate makes tort reform a more realistic goal than it had been in previous years. Monday’s press conference, led by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), the Mental Health Association of New York State and a number of other organizations, featured testimonials from victims and their relatives, a huge wheelchair and a visit from the Center for Justice & Democracy’s Medical Rights Bus Tour. The bus is making its way across the country to advocate against a bill before Congress that would nationalize several protections New York already provides for physicians, and add the cap on non-economic damages. “We are doing this today because they will be lobbying tomorrow for changes that we feel would weaken the legal rights of injured New Yorkers and injured patients,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for NYPIRG. “We are here to express our opposition and to launch a pre-emptive ‘truth strike’ in Albany, to debunk the myths pushed by lobbyists for organized medicine.” Horner said a year after doctors staged brief walkouts and came to Albany predicting skyrocketing increases in premiums and a corresponding decrease in the availability of health services, there has been no overall increase in premiums. He also said that New York has the second-highest number of doctors per capita in the nation, and that number has increased over the last decade. And he added that there is no evidence that tort reform in California, which is often cited as the model, has measurably affected overall health costs. “We don’t think there is a crisis in the courtrooms dealing with malpractice,” Horner said. “We think there is a crisis though, in terms of health care delivery in hospitals. Thousands of New Yorkers die each year as a result of substandard medical care. … We think that is the real malpractice crisis.” A report released Monday by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, contends that a small number of physicians in New York are responsible for the bulk of malpractice awards. The report, citing figures from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank, alleges that 7 percent of New York doctors are responsible for 68 percent of the malpractice awards. It also claims that 82 percent of New York doctors have not made a malpractice payout since 1990. “Contrary to assertions by the medical and insurance lobbies that ‘skyrocketing liability exposure’ threatens patient safety, the real threat is posed by the few dangerous doctors who commit most of the medical malpractice in New York,” said Frank Clemente of Public Citizen. The report says that somewhere between 3,000 and 6,600 people die annually in New York hospitals due to preventable errors. It also claims that malpractice premiums have generally remained fairly flat over the past decade — with $823 million paid in 2001 and $821 million paid in 1992. INSURANCE PREMIUMS “Organized medicine is investing its resources and not inconsiderable political power in a firestorm of activity that includes proposed state and federal ‘tort reform’ legislation and front-page and prime-time stories describing how a so-called ‘crisis’ in medical malpractice insurance premiums is what is hurting patients,” said Arthur A. Levin of the Center for Medical Consumers in Manhattan. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an epidemic of medical errors that is hurting patients.” Ann C. Cea, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, said hundreds of physicians will be in Albany today “to urge the Legislature to pass necessary reforms that will allow us to continue to practice medicine the way we were taught.” Dr. Cea disputed the figures cited Monday. She claimed that New York physicians already pay premiums that are among the highest in the nation, and many are paying up to 25 percent more than they were a year ago for essentially the same coverage. “As verdicts and settlements continue to increase exponentially in New York state, it is very likely that this summer companies will seek significant increases in insurance premiums and the state will be hard pressed to not enact these proposed increases,” Cea said. “Given the unstable economic environment that New York’s physicians continue to practice in, any liability insurance increase is unsustainable and will push many physicians to their limits.” Cea also claimed the report of medical errors is distorted and inaccurate. She said more reliable studies show that “only the tiniest fraction” of hospital patients receive substandard care.

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