Pennsylvania government and physicians' organization statistics cast doubt on the notion that many doctors have left the state because of rising malpractice premiums, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., reported Sunday. This prompted a quick rebuttal from the state medical society today.
Pennsylvania Insurance Department figures on applications for money allocated for relief of malpractice premiums fail to show a large decline in the number of doctors, and figures from the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which has lobbied for lower malpractice rates, actually show an increase, the newspaper reported.
Lawmakers approved a bill in December offering doctors relief in the form of steep discounts on the annual payments they make to a state insurance fund. The newspaper said applications for that cash, which were due in February, offered a new way to track the number of physicians.
The newspaper said that based on state Insurance Department figures, there were 35,474 physicians in Pennsylvania two years ago, while the number of applicants plus a list of doctors who carried malpractice insurance but didn't apply for the assistance now totals 34,997, a drop of 477.
The newspaper said that number didn't include an unknown number of doctors who moved into Pennsylvania over the last year, who were missed by Insurance Department recordkeeping, or who may not have known the state assistance is available.
The paper said it was likely more specialists exist than applied for the money, because doctors with three or more losing or settled malpractice lawsuits cannot get it, and specialists are sued more often than other doctors.
"We never said doctors in general are leaving," medical society spokesman Chuck Moran told the paper. "We always said it was high-risk specialists, such as neurosurgeons, OB/GYNs, general surgeons and orthopedic surgeons who are leaving."
The medical society has lobbied for a constitutional amendment that would seek to lower malpractice insurance rates by capping the amount of money someone could recover if they were hurt or killed by a doctor's error. Lawyers and some patient-advocate groups have opposed such a cap, arguing it would wrongly give a free pass to negligent doctors and hospitals.
The society maintains that 1,700 Pennsylvania doctors have left the state in the past three years, but the newspaper said it tried to contact 20 of those doctors and found half of them are still in business in Pennsylvania. Moran said the list is "substantially accurate."
Steve Foreman, who runs the medical society's research department, told the newspaper that the group's own statistics, based on the number of licensed doctors with Pennsylvania addresses, showed an overall gain of 800 doctors statewide from 2002 to 2003.
The figures also showed that the number of OB/GYNs and neurosurgeons actually had increased slightly, although there were fewer general surgeons and orthopedic surgeons, for a net decline of 16, he said.
"But even still, it's basically a flat line," Moran told the Associated Press. "The population of Pennsylvania isn't shrinking, it's getting larger and it's getting older, so you can anticipate there being a higher demand."
Some physicians who had alerted patients in early December that they were no longer able to afford skyrocketing premiums and would close rather than renew their policies said they had decided to stay after passage of the discounts on payments to the state insurance fund.
Today, the PMS issued a statement saying that Foreman was misquoted in the news report and that he had warned the paper "that there is no accurate baseline to which 2003 Mcare abatement figures could be compared, since this is the first time an abatement to cover high liability insurance costs has ever been offered."
In addition, the society said Foreman "cautioned the reporter that Pennsylvania has seen a temporary increase of more than 1,000 doctors in training during the past two years that are included in the total number reported by the newspaper."
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's licensing board for physicians indicated a drop of approximately 1,400 licenses during the same year the reporter used, the society said. Instead, the reporter chose to ignore the data, resulting in an apples-to-oranges comparison, and creating the erroneous impression that there was a significant increase in actively practicing physicians.
"The Pennsylvania Medical Society maintains its position that high-risk specialists have been affected by the medical liability crisis, and many have even left the state," it said.
Joseph Conn contributed to this story.