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Rendell pledges to help doctors

Saturday, March 01, 2003

By George Strawley, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell pledged yesterday to continue short-term financial relief to physicians facing high medical malpractice insurance rates, even if the state has to borrow money to cover the expense.

Rendell extended the date through which the state will pick up the tab for doctors' premiums for a state program that helps pay large malpractice verdicts. The previous April 30 cutoff has been extended until July 1.

The governor faces legislative resistance on a plan to use $220 million in health-insurer surpluses as a one-time payment to eliminate MCare premiums for doctors in the highest-risk specialties and to reduce by 50 percent the premium for all other physicians for one year.

The MCare fund -- the acronym stands for Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error -- helps pay large verdicts whose costs exceed a physician's basic malpractice insurance coverage. The MCare premium is less than half what the average doctor spends on insurance.

Rendell said in a statement that he would guarantee "that the relief I promised doctors from our state's MCare fund will be delivered this year, even if MCare has to borrow the money to cover the promise."

Rendell has taken a two-pronged approach to resolving the state's medical malpractice insurance crisis. While a task force is due to report on April 1 on long-term solutions to the problem, the MCare payments are meant to act as short-term relief for physicians who say they no longer can afford to practice medicine in the state.

Rendell spokesman Ken Snyder said the governor is promising doctors "that he will guarantee economic relief to them one way or another" but is not giving up on the idea of using health-insurer surpluses to pay for it.

"Insurers shouldn't see this as him dropping the issue. He certainly is not," Snyder said.

A spokesman for health insurer Highmark, which has about 5 million Pennsylvania subscribers, said the announcement did not change the company's position that short-term relief must come from sources other than health insurance companies, such as Pennsylvania's share of the legal settlement between states and tobacco manufacturers and proceeds from the sale of medical malpractice insurers.

"We don't want the health insurers to be in the same position as the medical malpractice insurers are in," said the spokesman, Michael Weinstein. "The use of our reserves of health insurance companies have to really be closely examined. Those monies are held to protect Pennsylvania employers and Pennsylvania consumers so that their health care claims can be paid."

Roger Mecum, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said the announcement came as no surprise because Rendell has alluded to it in the past.

"His statement puts a guarantee in there that he is going to find a way to fund this forgiveness program," Mecum said.

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