According to the American Medical Association (AMA), at least a dozen states currently face serious medical liability crises, largely fueled by an ultra-litigious cultural mind set and jury awards jumping by more than 70 percent (to an average of $3.5 million) between 1995 and 2000. Medical malpractice insurance rates have kept pace with the ominous trend, forcing more and more physicians to retire early rather than continue coping with metastasizing annual premiums.
In Ohio, one of the states on the AMA's dire-straits list, the top eight insurers raised their medical malpractice rates by 52 percent this year alone.
In late July, Dr. Romeo Diaz a surgical oncologist in Westlake, Ohio, reluctantly informed his patients and staff that he was retiring (at age 60) due to his soaring liability insurance bill. Two years ago, the premium was $26,000. Last year, it jumped to $46,000. This year, it rocketed to $83,000 due by August 7.
Kathy Fritsch of Vermillion, Ohio has been a patient of Dr. Diaz since 1993, when she began fighting the first of two bouts with breast cancer. She describes him as "a man who I feel saved by life twice." She recently made an appointment after noticing a lump near her rib cage. When she arrived at Dr. Diaz's office on July 29, she immediately felt that something was wrong, since some patients appeared to have been crying and the staff was less cheery than usual.
Happily, the lump she had noticed turned out to be nothing more than fatty tissue. Her relief turned to dejection, however, when Dr. Diaz, with "a tear in his eye," told her that he was closing his practice.
As reported in the September 2 issue of the AMA newspaper American Medical News, "Fritsch didn't want to lose her physician, so she rallied Dr. Diaz's other patients for a common cause: They would raise $40,000 to cover the insurance increase and keep their doctor from retiring." Fritsch began contacting the news media and made the first contribution ($ 100) to the campaign.
Meanwhile, members of Dr. Diaz's staff began referring to Fritsch other patients upset by Dr. Diaz's forced retirement.
On July 31 about 60 patients, many accompanied by family members, descended on Dr. Diaz's office to show their support, leave checks, and tell their stories to reporters on the scene. Nearly $17,000 was raised that day, and nearly $ 10, 000 the next. Within a week the initial objective was not only met, but exceeded, as the total climbed to $43,900. Dr. Diaz was able to meet the premium deadline, thereby keeping his office open for at least another year.
When Dr. Diaz first learned of the project, he balked at the idea, telling a colleague that he would not accept the money. However, he eventually agreed after a friend made clear how much his patients were counting on him, and the importance of his continuing to help them. He says of Fritsch, "She just didn't want me to retire. She said, "We need you and you can't go." I never thought this kind of thing could happen. I just feel so blessed and thankful."
According to American Medical News, his patients say it was easy to give for Dr. Diaz because he is a giver himself. "The doctor doesn't charge some patients who have no insurance. Each year, he goes on a medical mission to the Philippines, where he was born, and takes drugs and supplies and performs surgeries."
The remarkable show of support for their physician, Fritsch insists, was simply "all his generosity paid back tenfold." And Tim Maglione, senior director of government relations for the Ohio State Medical Association, says that "it shows you the bond that can be created between the physician and the patients. In this case, the patients took care of their doctor."
Neither Dr. Diaz nor his supporters know what they will do should his insurance bill continue to rise next year. For now, they are backing a bill pending in the state legislature that would place a cap on non-economic awards in malpractice cases.