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Michael R. D

Your Turn Michael R. D’Agnes Guest Column New Jersey legislators must stop the bleeding

Michael R. D’Agnes
Guest Column
New Jersey legislators must stop the bleeding

Hospitals and doctors across New Jersey have seen their professional liability premiums reach unconscionable levels, driving some toward financial ruin and forcing many of our good doctors to flee in search of a state where they can afford to do business.

The spiraling insurance costs have reached the point where the premiums, as a portion of total hospital operating budgets, have nearly tripled in the past four years, far outpacing the growth of the hospital industry in this state.

The effect, quite simply, is that hospitals are becoming limited in the extent of care we can provide. As doctors leave, the shortage restricts specialized care and forces patients to wait weeks or months to get an appointment. Many people don’t realize that hospitals just can’t raise their prices to cover their escalating premiums. And hospitals don’t want to. Government programs, such as Medicare, won’t in-crease the reimburse-ments on their end. Hospitals can’t run on a deficit, and these extra premiums need to be made up somewhere. The brunt often falls directly on the consumer, who soon learns a specialist is unavailable when he or she is needed the most.

The results are as common as they are cataclysmic: If a pregnant woman does not have access to prenatal care, then she will typically end up in the emergency room. A high-risk delivery could follow, causing an enormous – and completely unnecessary – expense for the hospital.

This crisis is an issue the medical profession does not face alone. Every resident of New Jersey, from the newest infant to the oldest senior, is a victim of this ongoing issue and is looking to the Legislature for answers.

But there are viable reforms that can be enacted now to prevent our best medical professionals from putting up their shingles in states that control malpractice insurance premiums.

The crisis can be curtailed now through common-sense legislation. I urge our lawmakers to consider:

• enacting a stricter statute of limitations on malpractice lawsuits.

• requiring expert witnesses to be practitioners in the same specialty as the defendant.

•expanding the existing $250,000 cap on hospital damages to cover hospital employees. That way, plaintiffs can’t cir­cumvent the system by filing suit against one or multiple hospital employees.

• establishing a firm definition of a "bad physician" that bans poor doctors from practicing medicine, yet prevents good doctors with meritless claims against them from being inappropriately disciplined.

• lowering the standard for judges to reduce a jury’s award of damages. Judges now are only allowed to re­duce/overturn an award if it "shocks the conscience." Judges should be able to use their own discretion.

• allowing hospitals to conduct self-critical analyses without having to disclose them to plaintiff’s attorneys.

It is time for lawmakers to fix our sys­tem. And then, rather than our doctors fighting for their professional lives in New Jersey, they can put every ounce of their energy into fighting for their pa­tients, which, in the end, is all they really want to do.

Michael R. D’Agnes is the president and CEO of Raritan Bay Medical Center, which operates two hospitals in Middlesex County