The problem medical malpractice insurance creates for health care in Trumbull County is obvious, but the solution is more elusive.
In 2010, a Trumbull County Common Pleas Court jury awarded $13.9 million in damages (later reduced to $9.7 million) to a family that sued Dr. Tara Shipman over catastrophic medical problems their daughter suffered at birth. The family previously settled for $6.5 million from another doctor and Trumbull Memorial Hospital.
After no payment in the Shipman case was made in nearly a year, the family's attorney obtained a writ of execution to confiscate the doctor's personal property. The doctor's insurance carrier then posted a $10.5 million bond while the case continues in appeals. Meanwhile, the insurance company has a separate case claiming it should not have to post the bond since its malpractice coverage is limited to $2 million.
While this case itself is not solely responsible for a growing rift between the medical and legal communities, it's the case that brought the issue to the forefront. That's probably because it's the largest judgment in Trumbull County history and believed to be the first time that a move was made against a physician's personal property.
Recently, a group of Warren doctors went public with their complaint against what they call a larger-than-normal number of malpractice claims. Dr. Morris Pulliam said the situation is causing doctors to close down practices and take early retirements.
''Health care in Trumbull County is on life support,'' said Pulliam, president of the medical staff at Valley Care Trumbull Memorial Hospital.
Without citing the Shipman case, Pulliam referred to reckless (legal) attacks.
The doctors said those practicing in Trumbull and Mahoning counties pay the highest liability insurance premiums in Ohio, except for doctors in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties. They say that those malpractice insurance rates can total almost $109,000 annually for a doctor practicing OB / GYN in Warren, compared to $81,000 for a doctor in the same practice in Columbus and $61,000 for a doctor in the same field in Cincinnati.
Dr. Robert Gurdak, chairman of pathology at TMH, said attorneys for plaintiffs with claims should be more selective in the cases they take to court. Other doctors pointed out more advertisements by attorneys threatening actions against doctors.
This week, Attorney Robert D. Vizmeg, president of the Mahoning-Trumbull Academy of Trial Lawyers, fired back in an op-ed published in the Tribune Chronicle. Vizmeg paints a much different picture.
Vizmeg says Ohio law protects doctors by forcing lawyers ''to often reject otherwise valid medical malpractice claims.'' The protections include rules that a qualified doctor must ''sign off'' that medical malpractice has been committed before a lawsuit can even be filed; limits on damages a victim of medical malpractice can recover; and a shortened time limit to bring a lawsuit.
The attorney added, ''Increasing numbers of lawyers are abandoning medical liability practice because of the barriers put into place by Ohio law and the high cost of bringing these claims.''
Therein lies a pretty massive disconnect. Doctors say they're abandoning their profession because of medical malpractice lawsuits and lawyers say they're abandoning medical malpractice lawsuits.
Perhaps it's time, instead of pointing fingers, to convene a civil discussion aimed at solutions. These are two historically honorable professions that must remain healthy for the quality of life of everybody in Trumbull County to likewise remain healthy.