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Doctors ready to stop practice without reform

North Florida physicians say they won't work after today without a bill to lower malpractice insurance rates.

By Associated Press
Published May 2, 2003

JACKSONVILLE - Many North Florida doctors are threatening to stop providing certain services today, since it appears that the Legislature will adjourn without passing a bill aimed at lowering medical malpractice insurance rates.

The Florida House and Senate, which are scheduled to adjourn their annual session today, have passed differing bills that they say would lower the rates. A compromise measure will have to be worked out, possibly in a special session.

Lisette Gonzalez-Mariner, a spokeswoman for the Florida Medical Association, said Thursday she did not know the specific number of physicians planning to stop working today, but five of Jacksonville's largest practices covering such specialties as orthopedics and childbirth say they will stop or curtail services. Hospitals and government health officials say they have contingency plans and emergency care should not be affected.

The House bill limits noneconomic damages to $250,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits, while the Senate bill has no caps. Physicians say the caps are needed to hold down rates. Malpractice lawyers say the higher rates are caused by the falling stock market, which has hurt insurance company profits.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that if a compromise cannot be reached today, it will be handled in a special session.

The doctors' protest began when large physician groups in North Florida announced they would stop or limit services at the end of the legislative session.

Other specialists followed, either through their own concerns over malpractice insurance rates or an inability to safely practice without help. Hospitals say patient care will be severely impaired.

The Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute is suspending much of its services at the end of business today. "It is a patient safety issue," said Patrick Hinton, executive director, explaining that it is not safe to operate on orthopedic patients without backup surgeons.

Even the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars are affected by the shutdown because Hinton's institute provides the team's surgical care. The Jaguars, who are having a training camp this weekend, have arranged with doctors from other Florida pro sports teams to perform any necessary surgeries.

Jacksonville hospitals and the Duval County Medical Society say they are working with the county Health Department on a contingency plan to ensure that as many patients as possible are served.

Physicians are on standby in North Florida to replace those who may be walking off the job and an emergency communications center will be staffed around the clock for patient referrals. Hospitals will also have referral forms available for patients to tell them where to go if they are turned away for service. Shands-Jacksonville hospital will remain open.

It's possible that the stoppage could spread to other areas of the state if no legislation is passed. In Daytona Beach, the six trauma surgeons at Halifax Medical Center said they will stop operating June 1. A southwest Florida hospital has stopped delivering babies because of rising malpractice rates.

[Last modified May 2, 2003, 02:31:39]

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