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October 29, 2002 - Doctors, patients, rally on opposite sides of malpractice bill

Doctors crushed by rising insurance premiums want verdicts capped in medical malpractice cases. Victims of medical malpractice oppose such caps. Both sides have argued their cases before lawmakers for months. Wednesday, they planned side-by-side events at the Ohio Statehouse expected to attract hundreds.

Cleveland surgeon Daniel McLaughlin said he's attending the rally because he is concerned about the future of patients' access to quality health care. McLaughlin, 44, said medical malpractice insurance he and his partner buy rose from $25,000 in 2001 to $125,000 this year. "We had to take out a loan so we could go to work this year," he said. The Ohio State Medical Association expects more than 2,000 doctors from around the state to attend.

Supporters say the bill is needed to reduce skyrocketing premiums that could force some doctors out of business. The legislation, which would cap awards for pain and suffering at $300,000, is modeled after a 1975 California law. Trial lawyers opposing the bill say bad doctors and insurance companies trying to recoup stock market losses are responsible for rising premiums, not jury awards.

Ohio is one of 12 states the American Medical Association has identified as being in crisis because rising medical malpractice rates are reducing patients access to health care. "You can't lose sight of the fact it's a very bad situation for doctors and health providers," said Maxwell Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University. On the other hand, people shouldn't forget that the legal system "does compensate innocent victims who have suffered tremendously from avoidable, unreasonable mistakes doctors and others have made," Mehlman said.

The U.S. House in September passed a measure to cap the pain-and-suffering damages that juries may award in medical malpractice suits at $250,000. In Nevada, a new law that went into effect earlier this month caps pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000. The law exempts cases of gross malpractice and those in which a judge finds clear and convincing evidence to warrant a higher award. In Pennsylvania, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill this month to eliminate so-called "venue shopping," which refers to victims and lawyers seeking out courts that are most likely to favor their cases. The law requires victims to file lawsuits in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred.

"Doctors involved need to do a better job, attorneys involved need to do a better job, the judicial system needs to be amended because it's breaking the back of the medical profession and the insurance industry needs to be called to task as well," he said. The 12 crisis states identified by the American Medical Association: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

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