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    Letters to the Editors

    Doctors would do better to seek insurance reform


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 23, 2002

    It is reassuring that the St. Petersburg Times' July 17 editorial Doctors in politics accurately notes that one of the major causes of skyrocketing insurance premiums is insurance industry practices instead of the unfounded claims of high jury awards. Doctors are rightfully upset when their malpractice premiums double within one year. Yet their cries of high jury awards (which is propaganda orchestrated by the insurance industry) as being the cause of the large increase in premiums is not only unfounded, it is illogical. The amount of jury awards clearly has not doubled in one year.

    You have heard lawyers claim that since medical studies show that medical malpractice causes 44,000 to 95,000 deaths per year, one of the major causes of the increase in premiums is the amount of malpractice. Although this argument has some merit, the amount of malpractice has not doubled in one year.

    During the last year, what event has caused insurance companies to lose millions of dollars? It is simple -- the severe stock market decline. A review of the insurance industry Securities and Exchange Commission filings demonstrates losses in the millions of dollars. The insurance industry, in an attempt to recoup its losses, has doubled its premiums and blames lawyers and jurors (who have no financial interest in the outcome of the cases) for the rise in premiums. Unfortunately, the doctors are asking us patients to give up fundamental constitutional rights, such as limiting pain and suffering to a paltry $250,000 when they should be demanding insurance reform. The limit of $250,000 would apply regardless if the injury were the death of your child, spouse or parent, or whether you were confined to a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

    One would think they would have learned from their experiences with managed care that an overhaul of the insurance industry is in order.
    -- Fritz Gray, Tampa

    Tell whole story of legal profession

    Re: Lawyer jokes won't vanish with a mere PR campaign, by Howard Troxler, July 8.

    At this time in our nation's history, it is vital for all citizens to understand our justice system and the role of lawyers and judges in that system. The Florida Bar has undertaken a public education campaign to promote that understanding. In this column, Troxler unfairly belittles and mischaracterizes that effort.

    Troxler cites two sensational and statistically rare cases of bad legal work. He ignores the fact that the vast majority of legal services are performed competently and professionally in connection with the important work of everyday life. Troxler suggests that lawyers should be disciplined for a lawsuit resulting in "driving a mom-and-pop business out of existence." Troxler ignores the fact that most lawsuits against mom-and-pop businesses are brought by other mom-and-pop businesses. Troxler then suggests that lawyers should be disciplined for "driving doctors out of the practice of delivering babies, because they can't afford the insurance." He ignores the fact that justice may have been obtained for a brain-damaged baby injured by the physician's negligence, that innocent victims may have been saved from future malpractice, and he ignores that the cost of insurance is much more related to CEO profit expectations and bad investment decisions, than to civil lawsuits.

    Troxler offers his advice for improving the image of lawyers: "Punish your profession's excesses." The Florida Bar should and does punish unethical conduct on behalf of its lawyers. The Florida Bar provides, at no expense to the citizens of this state, a disciplinary system that is more effective than the system applied to other professions. At least one-third of the membership of each grievance committee is made up of public citizens. I invite Troxler to put his money where his mouth is, and join a grievance committee.

    The media's focus on the tabloid-like actions of a few bad apples has had a real and devastating effect upon the public's understanding of what lawyers actually do, and that is turning people away from the law. As a highly respected political columnist, Troxler would do his readers a great service by recognizing the value of the Dignity in Law program and taking the time to tell the whole story instead of the sensationalized exceptions to the rule.
    -- Richard A. Gilbert, Tampa

    Physicians' practices at risk

    Re: Lawyers, doctors ready for turf war, July 17.

    The trial lawyers of Florida wish to strip a doctor of his license if he or she is found to have committed three malpractice acts or medical errors brought to the state board (their proposal under the Florida for Patient Protection amendments). This proposal does not appear to take into account the quality or nature of the doctor's malpractice. It is one thing to make a simple error of prescribing medication to a patient when compared to gross misjudgments in management of complex diseases.

    I am a relatively young doctor, with seven years in private practice and the emergency room. But I could no longer practice in Florida under this proposal. Even if I have performed my duties with good faith and effort, and if all my patient care has a success rate of 99.99 percent, I already would have lost my license (as I have cared for more than 300,000 patients so far in my career).

    Their proposal does not distinguish the type of malpractice, the risk to the patient or the damages caused. This proposal won't take away the licenses of just the "bad" doctors but simply will drive most of us out of the state. "Three strikes and you're out" is a great idea for felons but not for doctors. Further, these "well-meaning" lawyers who are "concerned with public protection" won't even get as many malpractice convictions if a jury knows that this next judgment will cost the doctor his career.

    To practice medicine, you must have a four-year college degree, four years of medical school and a grueling internship. Further, to become board-certified, an additional two to four years of training are required. In my case, with medicine a second career, I will be paying my student loans after starting to collect Social Security. All that education, training and resources lost if you make "three" errors. Who would enter such a profession? Who would then care for the sick? The practice of medicine is an art. There is often a lot of subjective opinion from which lawyers have made a lot of money when there are sad and unfortunate outcomes.

    There are bad doctors and, as a profession, we must be more vigilant in policing them, but I have never found any pain, suffering or societal problem ended through the action of lawyers' torts and suits. Lawyers perform almostly completely with hindsight, with cases taking years. Meanwhile, physicians cure, prevent and treat diseases, often with minutes or seconds to decide actions proactively.

    I am a member of a profession that can proudly claim we have eased pain, ended suffering and cured diseases. The rapid rise in malpractice insurance rates in this state already has many of my colleagues considering moving, and if the malpractice attorneys' proposal goes on the ballot, I will start the application process for other state licenses.
    -- R. Joseph Paquette, M.D., medical director, Emergency
    Department, Spring Hill Regional Hospital

    The insurance crisis

    Re: Assurance lost, by Jeff Harrington, July 7.

    The Times correctly noted that "the insurance climate in Florida has taken a turn for the worse." Insurers are losing money in Florida and across the country and that is the heart of the matter. Rising costs have forced rate increases in most lines, including auto, homeowners, business and health. Insurers have been forced to become more selective in their risk-taking. There have been some very significant insurance company insolvencies.

    The Department of Insurance rejected one recent, well-publicized rate increase, but it has approved others for homeowners and auto insurance, and I believe DOI will acknowledge carriers are facing hard times, even if it sometimes disagrees on the appropriate remedy.

    The property and casualty insurance industry experienced record losses nationally and in Florida in 2001. Nationally, homeowners insurers paid out $9-billion more in losses and expenses than collected in premiums, the second worse year on record, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York. During the 1990s, homeowners insurers paid out $1.18 in claims and expenses for every $1 in premium.

    Mold claims -- virtually unheard of a few years ago -- cost homeowners' insurers more than $1-billion dollars nationally last year. Multimillion dollar jury awards included an individual settlement in Texas for more than $30-million. Florida is seeing a substantial increase in mold claims and DOI has begun talks with insurers to keep these losses from getting out of hand.

    Rising medical and repair costs, unprecedented awards from litigation, and widespread fraud are the primary factors behind rising auto costs. The Florida Insurance Council is working with Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher on legislation to fix the state's broken auto insurance system.

    The troubled economy is having an impact. Investment income was healthy and above average during the 1990s. Policyholders benefited because much of the investment earnings went into the rate base to pay claims. This subsidy has largely disappeared as insurance companies have shared in the trillions of dollars in recent losses on the stock markets by institutional investors.

    It is anyone's guess how long the insurance crisis will last. Inevitable changing trends and the competitiveness of the insurance market ensure it will subside at some point and the insurance climate in Florida will take a turn for the better.
    -- Sam Miller, vice president, Florida Insurance Council,
    Tallahassee

    An outrageous appointment

    Re: Raoul Cantero.

    I am outraged that Gov. Jeb Bush would appoint Raoul Cantero to the Florida Supreme Court. Cantero is on record as condoning the terrorism of Orlando Bosch. Given the rhetoric employed by our politicians (including the governor and his brother), that if you are not against terrorism, you are for it -- it is the height of hypocrisy for Jeb Bush to disregard this fact.

    If Cantero were an Arab Muslim, Ashcroft would haul him away. Instead, Jeb Bush appoints him to the Supreme Court of Florida.
    -- Davanna Kilgore, Ozona

    Slow down for school zones

    Re: Children's safety.

    School will be starting in a few short weeks. When it does I will be starting my eighth year as a crossing guard for Hillsborough County. The sheriff's office tells us that it does not have enough deputies to patrol all of the crossings, and I can certainly understand that. So I am writing to plead with drivers to slow down and drive with caution in all school zones, to protect our most precious commodity -- our children -- from death or injury.

    If that is not enough of a reason to slow down maybe knowing how big a fine you will get if you get caught speeding in a school zone will. If you get a ticket for going 25-29 mph in a 15 mph zone, $225; 30-24 mph in a 15 mph zone, $275; 35-44 mph in a 15 mph zone, $325; 45 and over in a 15 mph zone, $525.

    I don't know about you, but I can think of plenty of other places to spend that kind of money.
    -- Gene Fricke, Tampa

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