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Health industry wants a solution to the medical insurance crisis.

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Wednesday 18 September 2002



Health industry wants a solution to the medical insurance crisis



HAMISH ROBERTSON: The Federal Government is tonight resisting further pres sure from some medical specialists, and the Labor Health Minister in New South Wales, to speed up its solution to the crisis in medical insurance. 


The Prime Minister is on the record promising a reform package by the end of the year. 


The Assistant Treasurer, Helen Coonan, this afternoon welcomed the release of an options paper prepared by medical and legal experts, but she say it won't hasten the government's considered response to a complex problem. 


From Canberra Simon Santow reports. 


SIMON SANTOW: Legal representatives and the medical groups, who sit on both sides of the medical indemnity problem, got together to produce the options paper. 


Dr Penny Gregory commissioned the advice, and while she knows that not every council member agrees with every option, she's pleased that the various stakeholders have the facts before them. 


DR PENNY GREGORY: We need to have the debate about how we best solve the problem of these very high-end premiums. We have very small risk pools and high risks with specialties such as obstetricians, or neurosurgeons, and we need to have a look at how insurance is working for them, and how we might better do it. 


SIMON SANTOW: Among the proposals is a recommendation to develop a long term care scheme for patients deemed to be catastrophically injured.  


The paper contains some controversial elements, such as equalising the premiums that doctors would be charged for insurance, no matter the differences in relative risk in the medical industry. It also proposes caps on pain and suffering, and the amount of compensations that can be pursued by victims. There are also further moves to deter plaintiffs from litigation, instead encouraging alternative dispute resolution processes, and trading the early payment of compensation for not admitting liability. 


DR PENNY GREGORY: Most people don't like the adversarial situation of going to court, and this paper provides a range of different alternatives that will reduce the need for people to litigate in order to get some finalisation of their issues. 


SIMON SANTOW: While the process of finding the answer grinds on, pressure from the states, and from medical specialists like Dr Warwick Stening, the President of the NSW Neurosurgical Association, is unrelenting. 


DR WARWICK STENING: A private practice is totally unviable for most areas of the state now, except for the very wealthy areas. We only have 30 neurosurgeons in this state. Ten of them have told me that they don't intent to practice next year if the matter isn't resolved, and it's not because they don't want to practice, it's because they can't afford to practice. They're not going to send their families to the poor house just to stay in the practice. 


SIMON SANTOW: In NSW, Health Minister Craig Knowles says he welcomes the options paper, but he's also impatient. 


CRAIG KNOWLES: In the end, the issue will be can doctors afford to pay their premiums and continue to practice, and we are still seeing evidence that despite the very substantial reforms undertaken at state level in tort law reform, most of the state's now paying for a doctor's liability cost for the work they do in the public system. Many of the premiums that are still being requested by insurance companies are still unaffordable, particularly for the high-risk specialities of obstetrics and neurosurgery. 


SIMON SANTOW: Legal groups are more cautious. The Law Council of Australia's Secretary General is Michael Lavarch. 


MICHAEL LAVARCH: The problem with the NSW Government's position is that they sign up and commission both this health working group report and a further negligence review report, but they don't even wait until their very reports that they commission come on board, they've already attempted to bring in the legislation. 


SIMON SANTOW: As for the Federal Government, Assistant Treasurer Helen Coonan says the Government won't be bullied into making a rushed decision.  


HELEN COONAN: It certainly is the Federal Government's recommendation and wish that we all continue to work together while we work out a range of solutions to this complex problem.