Rising malpractice costs hurting all

Elders on a fixed income are being hard hit when they need help the most.

Malpractice insurance rates for a local seniors facility have escalated tremendously.

"What the hell will we do?" asked Don Briggs, 96, a resident of the Carson Valley Residential Care Center. "Pension, Social Security is nothing. It doesn't take the wrinkles out. I just don't know what people like me, who are limited, will do."

Briggs, a Navy veteran, lived an independent life and now begrudgingly accepts help. But even a $50 increase to his costs per month could force him to become a hobo again.

Costs of medical malpractice have risen 500 percent in the last five years in many areas of the United States. According to the Government Accounting Office, since the mid-1980s, all states have enacted laws with changes designed to reduce insurers' losses by limiting the number of claims filed, the size of settlements and awards, and the time and costs associated with resolving claims.

The bottom line, according to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is affordability and availability.

Like premium increases, annual premiums and incurred losses for the national medical malpractice insurance market began to rise rapidly in 1998, according to the GAO in a report this year.

The St. Paul Co. covered the Carson Valley Residential Care Center before it stopped writing all medical malpractice insurance in 2002, when it claimed declining profits.

Carson Valley Residential Care Center owners Dr. Walter Reiss and administrator Jerry Jones have been partners for five years -- a record amount of time for an assisted-living facility to be under the same ownership. The facility -in the Gardnerville Ranchos can house between 57 and 75 residents.

"We have the capacity to open another wing to meet demand," Jones said. "But the costs are getting higher and higher."

Five years ago, they paid $5,000 annually for liability insurance. This year, they will pay $47,000.

"Its happening to everybody as insurance policies renew," Jones said. "Ours was renewed in July and went from $27,000 to $47,000.

Getting covered wasn't easy, either. Despite the fact the facility had never filed a claim, Reiss said, six different companies denied them coverage.

He believes there are solutions, including a referendum on a future ballot of a co-op of smaller specialty insurance companies.

Thomas Canfield, insurance examiner from the state Division of Insurance, said an established Risk Retention Group is a small self-owned insurance company. For instance, a group of emergency room physicians has licensed such a group, and another medical-related group is trying to establish a group to cover the Western states.

Another solution is a program modeled after California's law. Sen. Ensign said since California instituted the law, frivolous lawsuits have declined drastically. Injured patients receive a larger share of awards, and disciplinary actions against incompetent health-care providers have increased.

"The bottom line is that California's medical liability system works," Ensign said.

Legislation introduced by him this year would put a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages and limits on attorneys' fees.


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