Despite promises that rising medical malpractice insurance
rates would be suppressed under new state laws, many of Georgia's insurers
have hiked their premiums since the sweeping reforms took effect last year,
according to an Associated Press analysis of state insurance records.
Six of the state's top insurers of doctors and dentists have
increased their liability rates - in some cases, by more than a third -
since new restrictions on malpractice cases became law in Feburary 2005,
according to state Department of Insurance records obtained by the AP
through an open records request.
The reforms passed by the Georgia Legislature last year included a
$350,000 limit on jury awards for malpractice victims' pain and suffering,
tougher standards for expert witnesses in malpractice trials, and new
incentives for patients to settle out of court.
Doctors and hospitals contended the measures, dubbed "civil justice
reform," would curb malpractice insurance rates and help lure more doctors
to Georgia. Business lobbies, too, threw their weight behind the legislation
because it encourages speedy out-of-court settlements and penalizes parties
who make frivolous claims.
But trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups argued that limiting
damage awards puts an arbitrary price on a victim's life, and that the
state's medical insurers have fostered a false crisis by driving up premiums
in a market with little competition.
"Our worst fears have come true," said Allie Wall, the director of
consumer group Georgia Watch, which vigorously opposed the new laws.
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who supported the reforms that
backers vowed would help cut costs for medical providers, said ways must be
found to entice more competition in the state's malpractice insurance
market. Providers of malpractice insurance in Georgia typically seek the
insurance commissioner's approval of any planned rate increases, even though
they are not required to do so.
The six other companies that increased rates in the past 15 months
represent only about 15 percent of the state's malpractice market. The
largest of that group, The Medical Protective Company, underwrites roughly
$23 million in medical malpractice claims while MAG Mutual writes $162
million in Georgia.
The biggest increases were by Birmingham, Ala.-based Medical
Assurance Co. and Jacksonville, Fla.-based First Professional Insurance Co.
Both companies requested rate increases of 64 percent but settled with the
state on hikes of 35 percent. Medical Assurance's increase was approved last
April, while First Professional's rate jump was brokered with the state just
days after the reforms were approved by lawmakers.
Officials at both companies didn't immediately return telephone
messages seeking comment on why they requeste the increases.
Rate increases among the four other insurers ranged from 2 percent
to 15 percent.
To doctors who were squeamish about the law's impact, the premium
boosts validated their fears.
Dr. Kelly Thrasher, who practices internal medicine in Sandy
Springs, was skeptical of the legislation during last year's debate. Since
the bill was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, he's seen his malpractice
rates nearly double from $9,000 last year to about $17,000 this year.
"I feel like I've been duped," Thrasher said. "(The debate) pitted
doctors against lawyers because I think there's a natural rivalry, but a lot
of my colleagues were hoodwinked."