Doctors: Health care in crisis - Rally to encourage legislative action

By Janie Nelson

Tallahassee, FLA - 3/24/03 - If you have a medical emergency Thursday, you'll have no problem getting help. If it's not urgent, however, you may have to go to the Capitol to see your doctor.

Nearly 4,000 doctors and medical staff employees from all over the state, including about 400 from Tallahassee, will gather to send a message to lawmakers, according to the Florida Medical Association. Their message: Do something to lower the soaring cost of liability insurance or watch patients lose access to health care.

"This is a crisis that is far more advanced than the community realizes - than the Senate realizes," said Dr. John Katapodis, a cardiologist with Southern Medical Group and a local representative for the FMA, which is sponsoring the rally. "We've had six doctors in town retire this year, and all cite the liability issue."

The FMA and physicians statewide are backing a plan put forth by the Governor's Task Force on Health Care Professional Liability Insurance, which includes a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages. A limit on such damages is fiercely opposed by consumer groups and trial lawyers who say it wouldn't lower insurance costs and would penalize patients who are hurt by negligent medical care.

The task force plan has the backing of Gov. Jeb Bush and the state House of Representatives, which Friday approved a bill that includes the $250,000 cap on damages such as pain and suffering.

The Senate, however, has so far rejected the idea of limiting noneconomic damages. The Senate Committee on Health, Aging and Long-Term Care, while approving some of the task force recommendations, killed a bill last week that would cap noneconomic damages.

"Clearly the House of Representatives understands there's a crisis," Katapodis said. "The governor understands. Unfortunately, the Senate doesn't get it."

Doctors and the FMA are hoping that a swarm of white coats storming the Capitol will get that point across.

"We're doing this to make the public more aware of the crisis," said Katapodis, who said his group is having trouble recruiting new doctors because they don't want to come to Florida to practice.

"Florida is one of the identified states with a crisis on their hands," said Karen Wendland, executive director of the Capital Medical Society, which is coordinating local participation in the rally.

CMS is chartering buses that will leave Tallahassee Memorial and Tallahassee Community hospitals for the rally, which will take place from 2 to 3 p.m.

All emergencies covered

Although some of the doctors participating in the demonstration won't be seeing patients Thursday, emergencies will be covered, they said.

About 75 to 100 of Southern Medical's doctors and staff are participating, Katapodis said, but the office will be operating on an on-call/weekend schedule.

"There will be complete patient coverage on emergency care," he said.

Other offices are selecting one of their staff members to represent them.

For example, Judy Feinberg, office manager for North Florida Nephrology Associates, said Dr. Clarence Applegate will represent the practice.

"We'll be going on with business as usual," she said.

It's a little harder for single practitioners to close down, but Dr. Tom Enoch said he and Dr. William Kaufman - who cover for each other - plan to close their offices for the afternoon to attend the rally.

While Enoch's not sure the demonstration will do any good, he said, "You just have to do something to try to influence it."

The event shouldn't have a major impact on either of the city's hospitals.

"We have employees that will be attending on Thursday," said TMH spokeswoman Liz Nogowski, "but we won't be sending them."

While doctors aren't actively urging their patients to come out in support of their cause, organizers wouldn't object if some showed up.

Said Katapodis: "Our goal is to protect delivery of care to patients."


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