Newspaper finds more than 2,500 uninsured doctors

Published On: Jun 01 2014 09:15:21 PM EDT

A growing number of Americans are skipping needed medical care because they can't afford it, according to a recent study released by Commonwealth Fund's Biennial Health Insurance.

ATLANTA -

More than 2,500 doctors in Georgia don't have malpractice insurance, according to a newspaper analysis of state data.

That can leave patients with little recourse if something goes wrong, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The newspaper reports that dozens of the uninsured doctors have been disciplined by the state medical board for sexual misconduct, illegal drug use, patient deaths and other serious offenses.

Legal and medical experts said the fact that just under 8 percent of licensed doctors in the state are uninsured is worrisome.

"I know of no good way to understand that," said Dr. Gerald Hickson, an authority on physician behavior who teaches at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "I feel very strongly that it's one of our professional duties to be prepared to do the right thing in the face of an adverse event."

Doctors who practice without insurance — known as "going bare" — bear the responsibility of compensating patients if something goes wrong. That can put their assets at risk, but it can also leave patients or their families with little in a costly case.

The newspaper analyzed state medical board data compiled under a 2011 law that requires doctors to tell the board whether they have insurance. Of the more than 29,500 licensees who responded, 2,536 said they didn't have malpractice insurance. The board was missing information on more than 3,000 others.

Of the 2,536 who said they don't have insurance, 113 have been sanctioned by the board for violating regulations, including nine on probation. Among those without insurance are one with a $900,000 malpractice settlement, one disciplined for doing a string of unnecessary surgeries and one who's no longer allowed to treat cancer patients after several were injured or died.

It's not clear from the data how many of the uninsured doctors are actively practicing medicine. The newspaper did random checks and found that some are doing research, teaching or in administrative positions, which means they're not likely to see patients. Many others seem to be retired.

But the newspaper also found more than a dozen uninsured doctors who are treating patients.

The American Medical Association says 18 states have laws making malpractice insurance mandatory or providing other ways to compensate patients who've suffered harm. Acupuncturists are the only health care professionals required by Georgia law to have liability insurance.

The Medical Association of Georgia told the newspaper it encourages doctors to carry malpractice insurance and noted hospitals and health insurers in Georgia require doctors to be insured.

Georgia law requires physicians to disclose whether they have insurance. The medical board is required to collect the information every two years when doctors renew their licenses. It is then required to post the information online on doctors' public profiles.

But the profiles still haven't been updated to include that information three years after the law was passed.

LaSharn Hughes, the board's executive director, said the board can only collect the data at this point. An upgrade of the entire website would be needed to add the information to the online profiles, and the board would need lawmakers to approve money in the budget for that.

"When this is funded, probably next year at this time, the site will be up and running," she said.

The newspaper got the information from the board through an open records request. It then compared the data with the board's database of licensed physicians.

The newspaper contacted some doctors who are practicing without insurance, and they said the cost was prohibitive. Premiums in Georgia can be $13,000 a year for general practitioners, $44,000 for surgeons and $65,000 for obstetricians.

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