Thousands of Georgia docs lack malpractice coverage

Eight percent of physicians in Georgia, including those disciplined by the state medical board for serious transgressions, do not carry malpractice insurance, according to an in-depth investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The newspaper reports that 2,536 doctors out of more than 29,500 who hold medical licenses don't have coverage, which means they are responsible for compensating patients if something goes wrong. Although the physicians' assets are at risk, the article noted that in many cases they are considered "judgment proof," leaving patients or their families with little compensation.

"I cannot imagine any responsible physician not having at least $1 million worth of coverage," Tommy Malone, a medical malpractice attorney in Atlanta, told the Journal-Constitution.

Even more surprising, the investigation found that 113 of the 2,536 physicians who don't have malpractice insurance were sanctioned by the state medical board. The cases include those disciplined for sexual misconduct, illegal drug use and patient deaths.

However, it's unclear how many of the uninsured doctors actively practice medicine. The newspaper said a random check found cases of physicians who are in research, teaching or administrative positions. But it also discovered more than a dozen uninsured physicians who do treat patients.

Only 18 states have laws mandating that doctors obtain malpractice insurance, the American Medical Association told the newspaper. Georgia only requires acupuncturists have liability insurance, although a 2011 law requires physicians to disclose whether they have malpractice coverage.

Doctors who don't have insurance told the newspaper that cost was the primary reason. Malpractice insurance premiums range from approximately $13,000 a year to $65,000 for obstetricians. Costs are higher for physicians who were sued or disciplined.

Malpractice costs also cause tension in other parts of the country. A recent study by the RAND Corp. found the Affordable Care Act may increase malpractice suits by as much as 5 percent in states that see large bumps in their insured populations. The study suggests malpractice premiums would rise as a result.

In California, voters will decide in November whether to lift a $250,000 cap on noneconomic-related malpractice damages, a limit the state instituted in 1975. Both doctors and hospitals oppose the measure, although state statute prohibits hospitals from employing doctors directly.

But instead of caps on the amount of damages awarded in malpractice suits, the Centers for American Progress advocates for medical malpractice reforms to protect physicians and reduce the cost of defensive medicine. The think tank last year issued a report endorsing a safe harbor in medical-malpractice litigation to protect physicians who document adherence to evidence-based, clinical-practice guidelines; use qualified health information technology systems; use clinical decision-support systems to assist with patient diagnoses and treatment options.

To learn more:
- read the Journal-Constitution article