Angry doctors in Maryland are taking a rare step in their struggle against skyrocketing malpractice insurance, vowing not to pay a pending 33% increase set to take effect in January. With payments due Dec. 1 on 2005 policies, scores of physicians protested the steep hike by refusing to write a check to their insurers, said Karl Riggle, M.D., a general surgeon in Hagerstown, Md., who is a leader of a group called Save our Doctors; Protect our Patients.
Riggle said a "huge" number of Maryland physicians are withholding their insurance payments to help highlight efforts to encourage the state Legislature to enact laws that will provide long-term solutions to skyrocketing premiums.
"This is a scary proposition for doctors," said Riggle, who has not written his renewal check. "But the fact that so many doctors are doing this, independent of one another, shows just how significant this problem is."
For now, doctors won't be forced to suspend practices. Though insurance payments were due Wednesday, Riggle said, their annual policies run through the end of this month. He said he is optimistic that the Legislature will meet in special session to address the physicians' concerns.
Riggle's organization, which he said has about 3,000 members, wants "comprehensive" reforms that include better ways to more precisely define the economic costs associated with injuries in malpractice cases. He says those costs are routinely exaggerated or overstated.
Unlike most of his colleagues, including top officials with the Chicago-based American Medical Association, Riggle and many members of his organization discount the significance of legislatively mandated caps on noneconomic damages, or pain-and-suffering awards. He said studies have shown that the true impact of noneconomic damages amounts to only about 3% or less of total costs in these malpractice lawsuits.
AMA officials have consistently pointed to a 1975 California law that capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 as the gold standard for proposed state and federal legislation. For his part, Riggle, who said he officially supports a $500,000 cap in Maryland, suggested that the $250,000 cap passed nearly three decades ago in California now is no longer realistic because it now amounts to approximately $77,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Meantime, state lawmakers in Maryland appear to be acting on the highly publicized protests by Riggle and other doctors. On Wednesday, a Senate commission endorsed the creation of a state fund to help subsidize insurance premiums for physicians over the next four years. It remains uncertain whether a special session will be called to address related issues.
Riggle is among one of the more active physicians in Maryland on the malpractice issue. In October, he was among four doctors who threatened to halt nonemergency surgeries at Washington County Hospital for two weeks in November as a way to protest the 33% insurance hikes. Riggle and his colleagues relented after a meeting with Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., who told them he was working on a legislative solution.