Malpractice rates force Danville surgeon to close practice

January 15, 2004|HERB BROCK

Danville surgeon Dr. David C. Liebschutz is proud of his profession but he knows that it didn't always enjoy the high esteem it does today.

"In the Middle Ages barbers doubled as surgeons," he said at his Third Street office Wednesday. "We've come a long way since then."

But while the surgeons of the 12th century may have lacked the skills, status and income of their professional descendants, Liebschutz would note that they at least didn't have to pay the medical malpractice insurance premiums being charged surgeons of the 21st century.

The cost of those premiums is what caused Liebschutz, 60, to close his practice on Jan. 1, several years before he had intended to retire.


"My certification as a surgeon is good through 2008 and I had planned to continue my practice (in general and vascular surgery) until then, but I could no longer afford the high cost of premiums," said Liebschutz, who has performed more than 15,000 surgeries and other major procedures during his more than 28 years as a surgeon in Danville.

"Just in a period of one year, my premiums increased by 64 percent. I just could no longer keep pace with that kind of huge annual increase," he said.

Also putting a squeeze on the budget of his practice, he said, have been cuts in Medicaid and Medicare payments, the move by the state to discontinue paying copayments for Medicare and Medicaid, and action by a lot of insurance companies to match Medicare and Medicaid rates.

Said Liebschutz: "With the rising medical malpractice premium bills and the changes in Medicare and Medicaid payments, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me, as the sole physician in my practice, to maintain my practice and to continue paying my employees a decent salary.

"It also was becoming hard to afford any kind of life, or at least one that you'd want to have as you approach retirement after working hard as a physician for nearly three decades, five days a week, late nights, early mornings and most weekends, running a sole-physician practice and taking care of a family (including wife, Pat, and now-grown children, Rob, Ann and Beth)."

Similar stories have been told by other physicians throughout the state, including Dr. Susan Coleman, a Danville obstetrician and gynecologist who stopped delivering babies for several months a couple of years ago because she couldn't afford her medical malpractice insurance premiums.

"It's hard to find a private practice physician east of I-75 who delivers babies any more," said Liebschutz.

Coleman has returned to delivering babies, after she found another insurance company that, according to her office manager, provides more reasonable rates. But Liebschutz said he decided he might as well take early retirement - kind of a golden parachute with a black lining, no rip chord and weighted down by a bag filled with insurance premium bills.

"I attempted to recruit another surgeon to join my practice and, if I had, I probably would been able to keep the practice going and continued with it," he said. "But I couldn't find anyone I believe would have been capable enough. So I decided to make the jump and risk a hard landing."

But Liebschutz, who is spending his days working with employees to close down his office and close out his practice, said he would like to soften his quicker-than-planned transition by doing more than dabbling in hobbies. For one thing, he would like to continue in practicing medicine on a part-time, free-lance basis.

"I'd like to fill in where I can at local hospital emergency rooms, and I have discussed the possibility of performing some surgeries at the (Veterans Administration hospital) in Lexington," he said. He also will remain active as chairman of the Boyle County Board of Health, of which he has been a member for more than two decades, and member of the Danville-Boyle County Airport Board.

And he plans to pursue an avocation that will definitely impact the profession - especially the impact it is feeling from medical malpractice insurance premiums.

"I hope to continue advocating medical malpractice insurance reform," said the former vice president of the Kentucky Medical Association who went to a rally last year in Frankfort attended by more than 800 Kentucky doctors seeking that reform.

"I want to continue to be involved in that movement," he said. "What reforms may emerge from the movement will be too late to help me, but I want to do what I can to make sure surgeons and other doctors aren't saddled with the enormous burden of premiums that are driving many veteran physicians out of the state or into early retirement and keeping young people from entering the profession."

Liebschutz is heartened that the recently-convened 2004 General Assembly already is considering a measure that would help doctors facing rising medical malpractice insurance premiums.

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