Malpractice insurance is driving doctors away
The first time I was lobbied, it was by a doctor, while I was in his office as a patient. It was about medical malpractice. He said New Mexico was having a crisis because the cost was unacceptable. He knew I was a reporter.
This was the 1970s. New Mexico would soon pass a law regulating malpractice insurance. That law included a cap on how much money the injured patient could collect from the doctor. Only with a cap on benefits could the cost of malpractice insurance premiums be contained.
I was lobbied again last year, also by a doctor in his office. Again, it was about malpractice. Doctors are leaving New Mexico, he said, because malpractice insurance is so expensive here, and it’s much cheaper in nearby states.
I keep hearing stories from friends who can’t get an appointment because there are no doctors available.
Annie Jung, executive director of the New Mexico Medical Society, offered this example. For one particular specialty, she said, the base rate in New Mexico for an individual doctor is $106,000 a year.
For the same specialty, she said, the base rate is $58,000 in Texas, $46,000 in Colorado, and $59,000 in Arizona.
A recent report from Gallagher Healthcare says nationally 34% of physicians have experienced a lawsuit for malpractice and 16.8% have been the subject of multiple cases. Malpractice litigation is unfortunately common, so let’s not assume doctors are careless or inept. Why it’s common is the subject for another day.
For most of us, what concerns us is not how much money we might recover in a malpractice case. The issue is whether we can get medical care at all when we need it. New Mexico has had a shortage of doctors for as long as I can remember, but things got rapidly worse after the legislature amended the malpractice law in 2021.
Part of the 2021 legislation was a requirement to clear up the deficit in the Patient Compensation Fund or PCF. The PCF is a state fund that supplements physicians’ private insurance. It helps to limit the doctor’s cost while protecting the recovery of injured patients.
The deficit is somewhere around $88 million, according to Russell Toal, outgoing Superintendent of Insurance. Last year the Legislature appropriated $30 million. This year the request is for another $32.5 million.
If the taxpayers don’t help pay off this deficit, doctors, hospitals and other medical facilities will have to pay it through even higher premiums. Or they can avoid the expense by moving to Texas.
Theoretically, we taxpayers could object to paying for doctors’ errors. If we did and they had to pay more, they would have to charge more and we’d be paying higher health insurance premiums. Then more of us would be unable to afford health insurance and would have to switch to Medicaid. Medicaid covers almost half of New Mexicans and, I’ve been told many times, pays doctors less than their costs of doing business. The low Medicaid rates are another reason doctors leave New Mexico.
The Patient Compensation Fund deficit is just one piece of the malpractice puzzle. Among other pieces, the 2021 legislation changed the definition of hospital to include outpatient surgical centers, such as the place you might go for a routine colonoscopy. Those facilities are saying they might have to close because they can’t get coverage at any price. So that must be fixed this legislative session.
Some people get injured by medical errors, and for them, this system is valuable and necessary. But it’s way too unaffordable for the rest of us. Legislation this session will probably curb the emergency, but we need a lot more.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.
This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Malpractice insurance is driving doctors away