Doctors make house calls for GOP Spurred by N.J. malpractice costs, hundreds canvassed in five key districts. One critic called it politics at its worst.

Posted: October 08, 2003

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — New Jersey doctors have staged protests at the state capitol, lobbied legislators, and shut down their offices for days at a time, all in their quest to win changes in medical malpractice laws.

Yesterday, frustrated physicians tried a new tactic: They hit the campaign trail.

Hundreds of doctors, clad in their white lab coats, knocked on voters' doors in five key legislative districts and urged them to vote for the Republican candidates who support limiting malpractice awards.

In South Jersey, about 50 physicians rallied at the Washington Township campaign headquarters of Sen. George F. Geist (R., Gloucester) before canvassing the Holiday City neighborhood in Monroe Township on his behalf.

Call it Operation House Call, they said.

"Ninety-nine percent of doctors are anything but partisan, and they will run the other way when politics are mentioned - that shows how desperate we are, that we are here today," said Manzoor Abidi, a Burlington County neurologist who serves as president-elect of the Medical Society of New Jersey. "But the brightest and the best doctors are leaving New Jersey, and the quality of care will continue to go down unless there is a political solution."

Doctors supported legislation that the state Senate passed in May to cap pain and suffering awards in most medical malpractice cases at $300,000. The bill was amended substantially and didn't pass the Assembly, thanks to what doctors say are Democratic politicians aligned with trial attorneys.

The Assembly's proposal would have subsidized malpractice premiums from a state fund for specialties such as neurosurgery and obstetrics that have particularly high payments.

As payback, doctors have spent the summer talking politics with their patients, urging them to vote for Republican candidates in Districts 1, 4, 14, 36 and 38 - the close races that could determine which party dominates the statehouse. Doctors' offices across the state are festooned with "Vote Republican" signs.

"Most physicians are naive. They don't usually work with government, and they don't give substantial amounts of money. But they're learning fast that the one way to seriously get attention is to affect who gets elected," said Assemblyman Eric Munoz (R., Union), a trauma surgeon who knocked on doors with fellow doctors yesterday.

Brian Drazin, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said it was ironic that doctors were making "house calls for votes, but won't make house calls when their patients are sick." When trial lawyers make campaign contributions, they support both parties, he said.

"Doctors need to focus on reducing malpractice before they focus on reducing rights to fair compensation," Drazin said. "Capping jury awards would have a disproportionately harsh impact on children, families and senior citizens. And I think when someone becomes a victim, they don't need a doctor telling them how to vote."

But Geist, who is locked in a close race with New Jersey State Police veteran Fred Madden, a Democrat, welcomed the doctors' support yesterday. He says he favors capping pain and suffering awards.

"I am honored by your support of responsible Republicans," he told the crowd of white coats at his office. "We have to stop meeting this way - I would prefer to see you in your office, caring for my constituents."

Madden's campaign manager, Richard McGrath, called the doctors' demonstration "a shameless display of politics at its worst. Democrats like Madden believe the medical malpractice issue should transcend politics, but Republicans like Geist are trying to exploit it," he said.

There is a chance that the medical malpractice proposals could be resurrected in the lame-duck legislative session scheduled to follow the Nov. 4 elections, but the issue will most likely go unresolved until after the 2005 gubernatorial election, Munoz said. Gov. McGreevey has not favored capping pain and suffering awards.

A former insurance executive told a legislative panel last week that the malpractice insurance companies are the ones to blame for high premiums. Howard P. Wiss, a former senior vice president for MIIX Insurance Co. of Lawrenceville, Mercer County, said insurance companies were trying to recoup losses caused by bad business decisions.

State capitols across the country are wrestling with the same questions on medical malpractice. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Rendell has proposed allowing judges to lower jury awards if they find them unreasonable, and recommended eliminating a costly state assessment known as MCARE added on doctors' malpractice premiums. Medical malpractice claims in Philadelphia have dropped by two-thirds since the state issued rules earlier this year limiting the number of cases that can be filed in the city.

On the national level, doctors have also found friends in the GOP. President Bush supports a bill limiting pain and suffering awards that easily passed the House of Representatives earlier this year but has been stalled in the Senate.

Doctors yesterday warned there was little time left for change.

This year, the number of neurosurgeons in the state dropped from 86 to 64 after a number of doctors moved to other states to avoid the skyrocketing premiums that plague the specialty. Camden County neurosurgeon Dhiraj Panda noted that his malpractice insurance premiums jumped from $50,000 to $150,000 in one year.

"Doctors are leaving the state, and our services are being compromised," said Bruce Monaghan, a Woodbury hand surgeon who serves as president of the Gloucester County Medical Society. "We need a long-lasting solution, and the Republicans are our best chance for that."

Contact staff writer Kaitlin Gurney at 609-989-7373 or kgurney@phillynews.com.

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