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LIJ doctors rally for malpractice suit reform

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More than 200 doctors called upon the state Legislature to enact malpractice tort reform at a forum to organize doctors against the skyrocketing insurance premiums at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park Friday.

Angry physicians said huge jury awards and frivolous lawsuits were making it nearly impossible to make a living, especially in the fields of obstetrics and neurosurgery where the vast majority of malpractice cases occur.

One obstetrician told the audience that his malpractice insurance carrier had raised his premiums from $35,000 to $75,000 a year in 2001, despite the fact that he had never been sued.

"For the first time ever, I couldn't earn enough money in my practice to provide my patients with the care they expected," New Jersey-based obstetrician Ron Bochter said in remarks to his fellow doctors.

Bochter, who trained at LIJ, has spearheaded a movement to reform the malpractice laws in his home state. He was invited to the forum to help New York doctors, whom he described as several years behind New Jersey doctors, get similarly organized.

He said the trend of rising premiums could eventually lead to a critical shortage of obstetricians, but so far his warnings have fallen on deaf ears in Trenton due to the influence of trial lawyers' lobby groups.

"They're very good at arguing," Bochner said of the trial lawyers' lobby. "They're very good at blowing smoke on an issue. You guys [doctors] play by the rules."

Another speaker, former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, slammed the current system, calling for a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are monetary awards given out by juries for pain and suffering, as opposed to compensation for lost wages and medical expenses.

She also said the jury system was inadequate for highly technical malpractice cases.

"You're asking storekeepers, truck drivers and auto mechanics to determine if a diagnosis is correct," she said, adding that lawyers used "junk science" to hoodwink jurors.

McCaughey suggested the creation of special tribunals specifically for malpractice cases, citing patent court and international trade court as precedents.

A bill to cap noneconomic damages is currently under consideration by the Senate, but no companion bill exists in the Assembly.

McCaughey blasted that house of the Legislature, saying Democrats observed their own oath of "first, do no harm to the trial lawyers."

Those lawyers, not surprisingly, oppose most efforts to reform the current system.

Peter Rosenberg, a partner at Rosenberg, Minc & Armstrong, a firm with offices in Manhattan, Astoria and Jamaica, called limiting damages and replacing the jury system "unfair and un-American."

He said the $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages would be an insult to some patients - like severe burn victims - who are horribly disfigured but can still perform their jobs and have lost no income.

"My whole life has been ruined ... and I get $250,000 minus expenses," he said. "Is that fair?"

A cap on pain and suffering would leave loss of income as the main determinant in deciding damages - a method that would give higher awards to those with higher incomes, he added.

But Rosenberg also sympathized with young physicians struggling against crippling insurance premiums.

One such obstetrician paused outside the rally at LIJ to explain why she had taken time out to attend it.

"There's the constant threat of lawsuits, most of which are without merit," said Judy Mittleman, a 37-year-old attending physician at LIJ with offices in Bayside and East Hills.

Cynthia Hall, a physician at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, said she had stopped delivering babies entirely.

"I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "Everytime I was in the physicians' lounge, I was hearing about lawsuits."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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