It took Elizabeth Gromny six years and countless infertility treatments to conceive her first child. But her timing could not have been worse. The day she called to make her first appointment with her obstetrician, the doctor had just capped the number of deliveries she would perform. Why? The doctor's insurance bill would shoot up if she exceeded a certain number of births. Gromny was turned away not only from her doctor but also from others all over Las Vegas who face similar limits.
More pregnant women and other Americans in need of medical care are getting the same cold shoulder at hospitals and doctors' offices from Pennsylvania to Oregon, which are limiting their case loads--or going out of business--because of the high cost of insurance. Malpractice insurers have been hit by several years of soaring jury awards, even as the slumping stock market has ended the fat returns they used to get from investing premiums. As insurers try to make up for their losses by sharply raising rates, medical facilities are shuttering wards and doctors are dropping high-risk practice areas such as obstetrics and trauma surgery. Employers are shying away from the hardest-hit cities while doctors and legislators cobble together solutions that could change the face of medical care.
In some states, hospitals are closing entire clinics and rural communities are losing their only practitioners. Mercy Hospital of Philadelphia closed its maternity ward after annual insurance premiums for its group of four hospitals swelled to $22 million, from $7 million in 2000. In Arizona one woman gave birth by the side of the road before she reached the only remaining maternity ward in an area of 6,000 sq. mi. The sole trauma center in Las Vegas closed for 10 days in July, forcing critically injured patients to be helicoptered to California or treated in ill-equipped local emergency rooms.
Sommer Hollingsworth, president of the Nevada Development Authority, which works to attract employers to southern Nevada, observed that of about 350 firms his group sought to recruit over the past year, "we've never had anyone ask about the nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, but client after client wants to know what we are going to do about the doctor situation. The quality of the medical system plays a big role for companies choosing to relocate."
Nevada has been especially hard hit because it's one of the states with the sharpest rise in malpractice costs. But those costs are climbing nationwide. According to one study, from 1999 to 2000 the median plaintiff's jury award in medical-malpractice cases increased 43%, from $700,000 to $1 million. Last year the MIIX Group, an insurer in 24 states, saw 26 claim payments of more than $1 million. This year it has faced an average of one new $1 million-plus claim every week.