By Ed Runyan
About 30 Trumbull County physicians participated in a news conference Wednesday at Avalon Inn to protest the way the legal systems in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, as well as across the state, treat medical malpractice lawsuits.
They said large jury awards, resulting in high-cost medical malpractice insurance for the doctors, are likely to discourage physicians from practicing in the Mahoning Valley.
“Health care in Trumbull County is on life support,” said Dr. Morris Pulliam, president of the medical staff at ValleyCare Trumbull Memorial Hospital. “We must all address the eroding access to quality health care that all of us may suffer as a result of recent legal actions taken against local physicians.”
Dr. Pulliam and others declined to name specific legal cases that concern them, but they referred indirectly to the case of Dr. Tara Shipman of Cortland, a pediatrician who was sued in Trumbull County for malpractice.
A child Shipman delivered at Trumbull Memorial was born with brain damage that attorneys argued could have been prevented if Dr. Shipman would have performed a caesarian section.
In December 2010, a jury awarded the patient and her family a record $13.9 million after a 15-day trial.
One thing that really bothered the physicians about that case was that a judge authorized the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office to seize property at Dr. Shipman’s house in September 2011 to collect some of the money the jury awarded.
Insurance typically covers a physician for about $1 million, and anything above that can be charged to the physician, one doctor said.
“Late last year an unusual set of circumstances occurred in which a local court authorized law enforcement to take possession of a Trumbull County doctor’s private property against a judgment that was still under appeal,” Dr. Pulliam said.
“While the order was ultimately withdrawn by the court, it’s this kind of action that sets a dangerous precedent and creates an environment that’s both nonproductive and destructive.”
Dr. Pulliam said a Trumbull County neurosurgeon like him has to pay $160,000 per year for malpractice insurance, but the cost is $60,0000 to $70,0000 in Cincinnati and $25,000 to $30,000 in Montana.
Dr. Richard Loges, president of the Trumbull County Medical Society, said medical liability insurance in Trumbull and Mahoning counties is the third- and fourth-highest in the state behind only Cuyahoga and Lorain counties.
The average cost in Trumbull and Mahoning counties for insurance for obstetricians and neurosurgeons is $108,000 per year — 25 percent to 40 percent higher than the majority of the state, Dr. Loges said.
“At these figures, we could be headed for a day that women may no longer be able to deliver their babies in Trumbull County,” Dr. Loges said.
“Obstetricians will no longer be able to afford malpractice insurance.”
Loges said one solution would be for the Ohio Legislature to establish a “formula” or “cap” on the amount of money a jury can award.
“You need to take the emotion out of it,” Dr. Loges said, adding that juries have a hard time knowing how to judge the validity of the testimony of medical experts.
Dr. Robert Gurdak, medical director and chairman of the Department of Pathology at Trumbull Memorial, said excessive jury awards also have the unintended consequence of increasing the cost and discomfort of medical care.
When doctors are overly concerned about getting sued, they order more tests.
“It’s really not the way patients want to be treated,” Dr. Gurdak said, because extra tests lead to extra discomfort, and extra X-rays lead to extra radiation.
Extra tests also lead to additional “false-positive” results that can only be verified or corrected through even more tests.