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    More than 800 doctors skip work to decry insurance rates

    As they object to malpractice rates, a patient advocacy group protests proposed caps on damage awards.

    ©Associated Press
    January 28, 2003


    WEST PALM BEACH -- More than 800 doctors, primarily from Palm Beach County, walked off the job Monday to protest rising malpractice insurance rates that they say are driving doctors out of work and threatening patient care.

    Instead of working, the doctors are attending a two-day conference looking at the problem. They were mostly from Palm Beach County, but some also came from Broward, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

    Meanwhile, a patient advocacy group staged a separate protest, claiming that a proposed cap on malpractice damage awards provides no justice for victims of negligent doctors.

    U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, said patients will continue to suffer if more doctors are forced to leave the state or retire early because high insurance rates make it impossible to continue practicing. Foley said he plans to push a House bill that would limit malpractice costs to doctors and cap awards.

    Palm Beach hospitals prepared for the doctors' absence by beefing up emergency room staffs, rescheduling elective surgeries and reducing operating room staffs. There were no reports of problems Monday. Doctors rescheduled appointments.

    A task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush voted to recommend this month that jury awards for punitive damages and pain-and-suffering awards in malpractice cases be capped at $250,000.

    Bush said Monday that heightening awareness of the issue was important.

    "The quality of care for Floridians will be diminished if we don't deal with medical malpractice reform," Bush said.

    Victims of medical malpractice, though, say the industry can't put a cap on the value of someone's health or life.

    Wayne Portch, 56, said he lost both legs below the knee and parts of four fingers after two doctors failed to diagnose an infection over four days. He and his wife, Paula, say they're looking for accountability.

    "This isn't about the good doctors. This is about the bad doctors," Paula Portch said. "Our whole life has changed. Should this be allowed to go on?"

    Doctors say they don't want to remove accountability and want to continue to examine how they can reduce errors and negligence. But they say the system must be fixed, pointing to insurance rates that for some specialists have increased as much as 300 percent in one year.

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