Ohio Gov. Bob Taft signed a bill into law last week 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 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.
"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 in Columbus. "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 for malpractice cases, should help bring some stability to the industry, Womer Benjamin said. But relief will take time.
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.
The new law provides $12 million collected from premiums to get the state insurance fund started.
Taft, a Republican, 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 lawsuits.