Facebook Pixel
HKQ Facebook PageHKQ's LinkedIn Page HKQ Law Firm You Tube Channel HKQ Scranton & Wilkes Barre PA Law Firm Home Page

Attorneys extend olive branch to area doctors

By Fred Ney, Citizens' Voice Staff Writer 11/30/2002

A group of local personal injury lawyers are extending an olive branch to the region's physicians over the raging medical malpractice insurance debate.

Attorneys Joseph Quinn, William Anzalone and Neil O'Donnell represent a larger group of county lawyers who specialize in litigation.

The recently formed "Committee for Justice for All" wants to initiate dialogue with the Luzerne County Medical Society with an eye toward resolving outstanding issues that have had the doctors, the lawyers and the insurance companies at each other's throats for years.

"We understand the doctors have problems and we'd like to help them resolve some issues," said Anzalone.

Pennsylvania doctors have been screaming that their medical malpractice insurance rates are going through the roof and forcing them to either stop accepting new patients or shut down practices completely and move to another state where the insurance issues are not prohibitive.

They blame frivolous litigation for their plight and are demanding that caps be placed on jury awards in order to restore affordable insurance.

Lawyers counter that caps on jury awards will only punish victims of negligent medical care a second time by making it impossible to collect fair compensation.

Insurance companies are generally blamed by both groups for being greedy and trying to unfairly recover money lost from 9/11 claims and a dismal stock market performance.

Quinn said he's got some ideas for positive reform that doesn't involve jury award caps but would help cut costs to spur lower insurance premiums.

"We're not going to solve this by finger pointing," Quinn insisted.

At the same time, he said he'll never countenance reforms that hinder legitimate victims from securing justice.

Quinn said one big reason why costs to settle malpractice cases have skyrocketed is the unreasonable length of time that they linger.

"We'll have a very legitimate claim but, unlike a person's car insurance carrier, malpractice insurers must observe a doctor's orders if he insists that he doesn't want to settle a claim.

"When you hit someone with your car, you don't get to stop the insurance company from settling the claim. But a doctor can stop his malpractice insurer from settling," Quinn explained.

"So, you see cases lingering two...three years and that vastly increases the settlement costs when the case finally is concluded," he pointed out.

"If many of these cases were settled quickly, the expense would be far less," he stressed.

Quinn said another element that would contribute to lower costs is a "rating system" that takes into account a doctor's good record.

"Doctors with good records are being penalized for the handful in their profession that are driving the insurance rates up. A rating system would put the burden where it belongs...with those most responsible for the drain on the system," he stated.

Anzalone said another way to help lower costs would be to completely eliminate private insurance companies from the equation and put the entire issue in the hands of the catastrophic fund operated by the state.

Quinn noted that private insurance companies have only limited exposure in any malpractice claim. He said they cap their payment at $300,000. In jury awards that may go much higher, the difference is paid by the CAT fund.

Anzalone said John Reed, who heads the state CAT fund, said recently that eliminating private insurance companies would lower premium costs by 40 percent.

"The key is that the CAT fund can be run on a break-even basis. Insurance companies have to make profits to keep shareholders happy," he noted.

While the overall tone of the lawyers was conciliatory, Quinn did take off the gloves on a few occasions.

He said he believes that some of the doctors' claims of insurance rate increases are exaggerated.

"Ask them to show you their premium notices," he challenged.

He also took issue with some of the stories of doctors who left the area to practice in climates that are "more friendly."

"Some of those people left because there were so many claims lodged against them. I read one report that said a doctor left even though she was never sued. I checked the court dockets...there were 16 claims against her," Quinn related.

He cited the case of another doctor who said he was giving up his practice because of the medical malpractice insurance issue.

"What he didn't tell anyone was that he makes $1 million a year as an expert witness in malpractice lawsuits," Quinn said.

Quinn, Anzalone and O'Donnell all agreed that the lawyers should help the doctors and the health care systems increase the Medicare reimbursement rates which they all admitted is unfair.

Quinn said that one element alone is responsible not just for hospitals having difficulty making ends meet but is also a factor in increasing the risk of negligent treatment.

He explained that when hospitals are stretching budgets, they pay skilled technicians less which encourages the good people to go elsewhere for higher pay.

That leaves less trained or skilled personnel who are more apt to make mistakes triggering malpractice claims.

Another issue Quinn believes would help would be for the courts to strip away the ability of doctors and hospitals to keep the details of settlements confidential.

"Maybe if the public had a right to know the details of these settlements, there would be a greater understanding of who is really responsible in these cases," Quinn suggested.

He added that complete disclosure might lead to a clearer idea of what really must be done to repair the situation on a permanent basis.