Texas doctors close offices, picket to protest skyrocketing malpractice claims

Monday, April 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) _ Hundreds of doctors and other medical professionals closed their offices Monday to protest malpractice lawsuits that they say have led to skyrocketing insurance premiums.

Many of them descended on the Hildago County Courthouse Monday for a ``day of awareness.''

Dr. Jose Igoa, a 47-year-old psychiatrist who held a picket sign, says he paid $28,000 for medical malpractice insurance last year _ three to four times what he paid five years ago. Now, he can't find a renewal policy at all.

Like other doctors here, he says he has been the target of frivolous lawsuits that take time out of his practice and are emotionally stressful.

He says the problem is getting worse.

``We're doctors. We train more than half of our lives to help people. We don't want to cause harm to anybody,'' he said. ``We understand that when we cause some damage we want people to be fairly compensated. But when it comes to legal extortion ... it changes the way we practice medicine.''

Up the coast in Nueces County, where 63 percent of doctors had claims filed against them in the last 13 years, doctors planned simultaneous activities to show support.

Emergency services at hospitals will not be stopped.

``They see this as a plea for survival for doctors and patients,'' said Jon Opelt of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which helped organize and publicize the protest.

Critics of the walkout say doctors are being misled by groups backed by big business and seeking limits on jury awards. They say there's no guarantee insurance companies will pass savings from such limits onto policy holders. Meanwhile, they say, tort reforms give patients less recourse against medical errors that kill more people than car accidents, cancer or AIDS.

``Instead of marching on a courthouse, turning their backs on patients, they ought to be marching on the governor's office and joining with constituents to try to do something about skyrocketing insurance rates,'' said Craig McDonald, director of the lobbying group Texans for Public Justice.

In Texas and nationwide, the insurance industry has been rocked by the stock market slide, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and lawsuit expenses.

Since 1999, seven of 17 malpractice insurance carriers serving Texas have either left or gone belly up, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

``Over the last couple of years, we have been paying out more in claims than we have taken in in premiums,'' said Julie Pulliam of the National Insurance Association. ``Claim costs have gone through the roof. The primary reason is the cost of lawsuits. That's why insurers are very supportive of tort reform.''