Doctors who volunteer their skills say it is costing them too much

Monday, January 10th 2005, 10:26 am
By: News On 6

Providing free medical services is becoming too costly for many Oklahoma physicians. Doctors who volunteer their time are not only being compensated for their work; they're paying thousands of dollars to be able to do it, in the form of skyrocketing malpractice insurance bills.

News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin has more.

One Tulsa doctor says after years of donating his time to treat low-income, uninsured patients at no cost, he is hanging up his stethoscope. Dr. Ed Jenkins: "I thought that was part of my job, to help the people who didn't have any insurance and couldn't afford treatment and I was glad to do it." But when the bill for this year's malpractice insurance premium was $2,000 more than last year, he decided to stop.

Recent tort reform in Oklahoma did put a cap on lawsuit damages, but it's one that can be lifted in a variety of situations. Many doctors see the changes as ineffectual. “I know in our church there are about 20 doctors and only 3-4 that would dare to go out and practice charity medicine because they're afraid of being sued."

It's cost one Tulsa free clinic at least 4 volunteer physicians in recent months and they fear losing even more. Ann Smith, Neighbor for Neighbor Clinic director: “They want to come in and volunteer but they're not going to risk their house, their retirement and everything else for incomplete insurance."

Clinic directors may have found another way to cover physicians and keep delivering vital services. It's called the Federal Volunteer Protection Act and it's designed to control liability in states that don't offer much protection for doctors.

Clinic workers hope it will put their volunteers under the umbrella of the US government. Dr. Jenkins says he's no longer going to donate his services until another means of protection is offered. "I don't think I should have to pay $5,000 a year to give free care." Ann Smith: "Everybody in Oklahoma, especially in Tulsa needs to stand up and make sure something gets changed so that people can volunteer to help others. It's ridiculous."

The recent Oklahoma law does provides immunity from liability for volunteer medical professionals under certain circumstances.

Clinic directors hope by combining that with the federal act, they'll win their doctors back.