Fear Factor: Medical Malpractice
Legal reforms have brightened the medical malpractice horizon, but physicians are still wary of lawsuits -- and still angry at high insurance premiums. More than 2,000 now choose to go without insurance.
After years of warfare, the smoke is clearing on Florida's medical-malpractice front.
Illustration: James Yang
Some changes -- a $500,000 cap on pain and suffering damages passed by the Legislature in 2003, for example, and a constitutional limit on lawyers' fees in malpractice cases that voters approved in 2004 -- appear to be taking hold, with a recent decline in the number of med-mal claims, according to state insurance news regulators.
Other evidence: In 2005, the 15 medical-malpractice insurance companies in Florida that provide coverage for 80% of the market had to pay out 40.2% of premiums to cover losses -- a favorable percentage compared with other populous states such as New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Those 15 companies also made more than $800 million in profits. The market is now attractive enough that between October 2005 and October 2006, eight new companies, most of them risk-retention groups structured like mutual insurers, started selling med-mal insurance in the state.
In the wake of the reforms, some physicians already are paying less for their med-mal insurance. And last December, Jacksonville-based First Professional Insurance Co. (FPIC), the state's largest writer of medical-malpractice insurance policies, filed for a rate decrease that will reduce premiums an average of 8%.
The course of the med-mal wars also has put the lie to some of the more egregious claims about the impact of lawsuits. A 2003 General Accounting Office report found that oft-cited claims of physician departures in Florida were "anecdotal, not extensive" and sometimes "inaccurate." Despite claims by provider groups that malpractice pressures were making it hard to retain and recruit physicians, the GAO found that the number of new medical licenses in Florida had actually increased and the number of physicians per capita was unchanged.
For all the good news in the wake of the reforms, however, the med-mal atmosphere remains cloudy and complex. Few physicians are celebrating.