Ohio Gov. Bob Taft signed into law Monday a bill that will allow the state to write malpractice insurance policies for doctors if there aren't enough private insurers to offer them.
Four insurers have stopped selling coverage in Ohio since December 2001, and at least 73 doctors have left Ohio or cut back their practices in recent months, Ohio Department of Insurance figures show.
In 2003, premiums increased anywhere from 17% to more than 87% among the five insurers who write 70% of the state's malpractice coverage.
Insurance Director Ann Womer Benjamin said the state had to act to ensure coverage would be available if private insurers pull out completely.
"I truly hope I do not have to invoke this measure," Womer Benjamin said.
Taft said the stream of doctors leaving the state must be stopped.
"We have a crisis in Ohio that threatens the availability of good medical care," Taft said before signing the bill outside the maternity ward at Grant Medical Center. "That means hundreds of patients will be looking for new physicians."
The ability of the state to write policies, if needed, along with caps on the amount juries can award in pain-and-suffering damages in malpractice cases, should help bring some stability to the industry, Womer Benjamin said. But relief will take time.
"For those caps to have an impact on medical malpractice rates, insurers have to have some years of experience with those caps," she said.
Insurers are also awaiting the outcome of court challenges to the new caps.
In 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the Legislature's second attempt to limit the amount juries could award for damages. However, lawmakers narrowed the scope of the limits in a bill they passed last year and feel the court's current makeup is less likely to throw them out. The industry is watching the issue closely.
"It still has not been tested by the Ohio Supreme Court for its constitutionality. That's very significant," said Dan Kelso, president of the Ohio Insurance Institute, an industry trade group.
Taft and Womer Benjamin said OB/GYNs have been hit particularly hard by soaring malpractice rates.
Roger Baker, M.D., an OB/GYN at Aultman Hospital in Canton, said he paid $11,500 last year for malpractice insurance and one company quoted him a premium this year of $75,000.
"These costs are starting to affect our recruitment. Ohio should be an attractive destination for doctors. We have wonderful facilities across the state. Unfortunately, many are choosing not to practice in Ohio because of the malpractice costs," said Baker, who added that he's never been sued for malpractice.
The new law provides $12 million collected from premiums to get the state insurance fund started.
Taft also asked lawmakers to pass legislation that would require medical malpractice insurers to give notice 60 days before canceling policies or increasing rates. Taft also wants legislation to allow doctors to insure themselves, to improve malpractice-reporting procedures and to require screening of malpractice claims to weed out frivolous ones.