Doctors, AAHP team up to incite malpractice debate

WASHINGTON: Doctors and HMOs rarely see eye to eye, but the two are joining forces to make sure that the candidates in the 2004 Presidential race enter the debate over the soaring cost of malpractice insurance.

WASHINGTON: Doctors and HMOs rarely see eye to eye, but the two are joining forces to make sure that the candidates in the 2004 Presidential race enter the debate over the soaring cost of malpractice insurance.

The American Association of Health Plans (AAHP) combined its efforts with doctors' groups in Iowa and New Hampshire - the states that hold the Presidential election cycle's first caucus and primary, respectively - to ignite debate over the malpractice issue nearly a year before the polls open.

Since February, the groups have been bringing pressure to bear in those states through a series of ads, polls, unorthodox outreach materials, and political partnerships. They are trying to frame the issue as an indispensable element of any healthcare reform.

"When it comes to a real debate about how the current liability system has driven healthcare costs higher, the voters deserve more than they have gotten so far," said AAHP CEO Karen Ignagni at a recent press conference. Both groups maintain that frivolous lawsuits have driven insurance costs so high in some states that many doctors have had to move elsewhere or stop practicing altogether.

The AAHP erected billboards in both states designed to look like Powerball ads that read, "Medical malpractice lawsuits have cost our healthcare system $250 billion. It's time to stop the game." This week, they are continuing the lottery theme by sending 10,000 mock "scratch-off" cards to doctors and media in both states, entitled "Scratch Your Lawyer's Back."

The AAHP says it is working without a fixed budget for the campaign, but will "spend what it takes," and has tried to personalize the issue in New Hampshire by briefing media on the belief - backed up by AAHP research - that the state is only a year away from a situation like the one West Virginia recently experienced. Doctors there went on strike earlier this year to protest the prohibitive price of malpractice insurance in the state.

The campaign is expected to continue through the primaries in January 2004. The AAHP said it is researching the feasibility of expanding efforts to other early-primary states.

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