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N.J. Doctors Stage Slowdown to Protest Rising Insurance Rates

The slowdown, expected to be one of the largest ever by U.S. doctors, was intended to disrupt non-emergency medical care. The move could force patients to visit hospital emergency rooms for routine medical complaints.

However, the state’s 22,000 doctors did continue to perform emergency surgical operations and handle critical care procedures such as kidney dialysis and cancer treatments.

“The conservative estimates are that probably about half of the physicians in the state are participating in one form or another,” John Shaffer, spokesman for the Medical Society of New Jersey, told Reuters.

“They may be taking one day. They may be taking the week. They may be totally closing their office, or they may only be taking sick calls,” Shaffer continued.

“People will not be able to get to a doctor,” Dr. Joseph Costabile, president-elect of the Camden County Medical Society, said in a radio interview. “There just won’t be enough doctors to take care of everybody. That is why we are doing this, so they can peek into the future.”

The grass-roots action was aimed at pressuring Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, and the state legislature to put a $250,000 cap on so-called pain and suffering damages from malpractice lawsuits.

The cap would not affect awards that reimburse victims for the cost of medical care or lost wages. But since those payments are partly based on salary, the only recourse for those with low or no earnings is damages for pain and suffering, according to the New York Times.

While there has been an increase in large awards, a state report found the overall number of malpractice cases in New Jersey decreased 7 percent from 1998 to 2002, the Times reported.

Doctors complain that a growing number of malpractice cases have ended with damages exceeding $1 million, forcing insurance premiums to double at a time when physicians face higher overhead and labor costs in operating their practices.

A report issued by the state of New Jersey found that 7.44 percent of policyholders had their premiums increase 30 percent or more during the first three quarters of 2002. That report also found that factors causing premiums to rise included falling investment income, insurance companies’ inability to find affordable reinsurance and a response to past premium discounts during the 1990s.

It is unclear whether a cap would decrease insurance rates. The Medical Liability Monitor found that premiums in the 25 states with award limits rose more slowly than they did in other states. The Medical Society of New Jersey, a group backing the walkout, found that a cap would lead to a 7 percent reduction in premiums, the Times reported.

New Jersey doctors are not alone in protesting high insurance costs. In early January, two dozen surgeons at four West Virginia hospitals refused to operate to protest malpractice insurance rates. Last July, 50 doctors shut down the only trauma center in Las Vegas for 10 days in a similar protest.

The issue also has captured the attention of President Bush, who has spoken out in favor of a bill that would place a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards while also limiting punitive damages intended to punish egregious behavior.

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