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Minister blames states for problems with medical indemnity insurance; doctors want changes to insurance.

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Tuesday 1 July 2003

Minister blames states for problems with medical indemnity insurance; doctors want changes to insurance


MARK COLVIN: Now to the medical issue that just won't go away - the question of doctors' indemnity, which was supposed to have been fixed about a year ago, and is now back as a major problem for governments and health administrators. 


With today's new start to the financial year, changes to medical indemnity insurance have left many obstetricians uncertain about whether or not to turn up to work today. It's exposed the fact that the issue of insurance for doctors, particularly those working in high risk areas, is still a long way from being resolved. 


The Federal Government says it's the fault of some states for being slow to pass legislation that would limit the time within which a doctor can be sued. The states, for their part, argue it's the Commonwealth that's been dragging the chain. 


Peta Donald has this report. 


PETA DONALD: Fears that specialists across the country would down-tools today, unsure if they were completely covered by their insurance, didn't materialise. 


In the Canberra, eight anaesthetists withdrew their services, at a private hospital. In Victoria a small number of retirement aged practitioners walked out, and in Western Australia there was only minor disruption to services. 


It might not have been the chaos that some predicted, but there's still plenty of confusion and some doctors have decided it's not worth the risk. 


STEVE HOLMES: The fact that I've delivered nearly 600 babies in the last, nearly 17 years has brought me a great sense of joy and satisfaction, but every year for the last seven years, the rules have changed. 


PETA DONALD: Steve Holmes, a rural practitioner at Clare, in South Australia, gave up delivering babies, at midnight last night.  


STEVE HOLMES: Each year you accumulate risk because babies take a while to report damage and it may not indeed be apparent for ten, twenty years, so we have to stay covered with insurance policies for twenty years after we retire.  


PETA DONALD: Insurance cover for the so-called tail claims is only part of the problem. South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT haven't passed legislation limiting the time within which claims against doctors can be made. And doctors say premiums, well over $100,000 a year for some specialists, are simply unaffordable. 


The Federal Health Minister Kay Patterson blames some of the states. 


KAY PATTERSON: We've made a huge commitment financially and in terms of time, working with doctors to protect them, to give them greater assurance and assistance to ensure that they can continue to treat their patients. 


The Prime Minister has asked, for example, that the states take off the stamp duty off the premiums to actually assist and match what we're doing, and the states haven't done that. We've asked the states to engage in tort law reform; some states haven't done that, and there's only so much the Commonwealth can do. The states also have to play their part. 


PETA DONALD: The states though, say tort law reform is only part of it.  


Lee Stevens is the health minister in South Australia, where ten per cent of doctors in rural areas are still considering withdrawing services. 


LEE STEVENS: I don't think it's a situation where we should stand here blaming each other. We all have a role to play in finding solutions to this issue. In relation to tort reform, South Australia has passed one batch of legislation. Another piece is before the House now.  


The stamp duty issue is just a red herring. The issue is that of most concern here is the provision of services on the ground, the issue of tail cover.  


And this is where the Federal Government threw out a concept, gave a broad statement of support about fixing this issue without giving any detail, and that has just led to more uncertainty which is what we have to resolve on the ground. 


PETA DONALD: The Australian Medical Association agrees that the Commonwealth still has a lot of work to do.  


AMA President Bill Glasson. 


BILL GLASSON: We have to look at a new system, I believe, that spreads the risk among the whole community, rather than necessarily among a few. 


One of the initiatives that we're suggesting is that the three year and six year statutes for adults and children be tightened as such that the medical and indemnity system covers just those claims that arise within the first three years for adults and within the first six years for children, and that those that arise beyond that be covered by another system which should be funded by the general taxation base. 


MARK COLVIN: Dr Bill Glasson, President of the AMA, ending Peta Donald's report.