Illinois physicians will find cold comfort in the easing of the growth rate of their professional liability insurance premiums, according to the chairman of the state's largest med mal carrier.
Physician-owned ISMIE Mutual Insurance Co., based in Chicago, is projecting a 7.4% increase in its base rate beginning July 1, a big improvement over the 35.2% increase last year, the 15% increase the year before or the 12.5% hike the year before that, said Chairman Harold Jensen, M.D. The not-for-profit carrier reports it covers 14,000 physicians, more than half of the doctors practicing in the state.
Illinois physicians would have to go back five years before finding a lower rate of premium increases (5%) from the insurer, according to Jensen. In comparison, the Consumer Price Index for Urban Areas, the standard metric used by the Labor Department to measure inflation, rose just 1.9% between January 2003 and January 2004.
"The number of suits filed was not as high as last year," Jensen, an internist, explained. "We got a little dip this year, but it's still growing."
Overall, Jensen said, "The verdicts are increasing in size. Every month there is some terrible new feature. It's a slow-motion train wreck."
The increase in the base rate masks the true cost of medical malpractice coverage for many physicians who practice in higher-risk areas where rates are significantly above those elsewhere.
Jensen, appropriating a quote from the state's outgoing Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald, called the Madison/St. Clair County region near St. Louis "a hell hole of litigation." Cook County, which includes Chicago, also is a hot spot, Jensen said.
An OB/GYN in either area paid around $140,000 in claims-made coverage with ISMIE this year, while neurosurgeons shelled out between $220,000 and $230,000, Jensen said. Under pressure from its reinsurers, ISMIE stopped writing occurrence coverage in the mid 1990s, he said.
Rising premiums and the fear of tail coverage liability are driving physicians from the state, Jensen said.
"In Madison and St. Clair, as far as we can tell, there are about 400 doctors in those two counties," he said. "We have documented 60 who have left."
Earlier this month, MP Stat reported on two Carbondale, Ill., neurosurgeons, Sumeer Lal, M.D., and Theo Mellion, M.D., who announced they would abandon their practices in May and move out of Illinois rather than risk another year of med mal liability and soaring tail coverage.
Tom Firestone, M.D., president of Southern Illinois Healthcare, a not-for-profit corporation that owns the Carbondale hospital where Lal and Mellion practice, said their departure would leave roughly the southern third of the state without physicians performing cranial surgery.
Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said the governor is working on a legislative proposal to address the medical malpractice situation in the state, to be released in time for debate during the current General Assembly session, which ends in May.
"We hope to get it out sometime in the month of March," Rausch said. "It just hasn't happened yet."