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Heal thyself ; State must reform malpractice law, cut red tape to lower medical costs

The physician shortage in many parts of this state is alarming enough, but the fact that Western New York is hardest hit is especially troubling.

In some ways, no doubt, it's merely a reflection of the general exodus of population from this region. But it also is exacerbated by factors within and outside of the flawed system.

A recent report by the Healthcare Association of New York State, an advocacy group, outlined various reasons for the shortage of doctors, from an aging population in the field to the challenge of recruiting specialists or keeping the ones who are trained right here.

Aging is our common obstacle, though one we will all, hopefully, one day face.

But the issues of recruitment and retention offer several options, and prominent among them is lawsuit reform at the state and federal levels. While it is important to preserve access to the courts for legitimate claims of negligence, the current system is driving up health care costs by inflating the price of malpractice insurance and encouraging the wasteful practice of "defensive medicine." Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake.

By exerting better control over lawsuits -- from the reasons they are filed to the size of the awards given -- the state could reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance and, simultaneously, eliminate the sometimes needless and expensive tests many doctors feel obliged to order. You can't blame them for protecting themselves, but the cost to our economy is high.

Certain specialties are especially hard hit by our national litigiousness. Consider cardiologists whose patients, through no fault of the doctor, sometimes don't make it. Or consider the obstetrician delivering the less than "perfect" baby. Is it any wonder it has become difficult to find new doctors?

The result is that patients have fewer choices and costs continue to soar.

And then there's New York State. Doctors here face the same problems that other business people do in opening a business in this state. Albany's inability to restrain business regulation has driven many business people, including specialty and general physicians, across state lines.

Whether it's people fleeing to Pennsylvania or locales down South, the heavy fees, fines and obscure regulations that hamper business are one of the biggest threats to maintaining or growing our population. Low reimbursements for treating Medicaid patients in Western New York worsen the situation.

And we haven't even gotten to the weather, which is the excuse given by many for businesses not locating here. It's hard to compete with Florida -- even on its coldest days -- or, once again, the lure of North Carolina.

We can't do anything about that, of course. But that only makes it all the more important to fix the problems we can do something about, and to boast of our advantages.

Real estate costs remain low in Western New York, and our lifestyle is simpler. Without getting hammered by high taxes and heavy regulations, this area could easily hold its own, despite an unfair reputation as being the nation's snow capital.

The Healthcare Association plans on advocating for additional resources for the Doctors Across New York loan repayment and practice support program. It also plans to explore new alternatives for improving access to health care, including telemedicine and expanding the scope of practice for mid-level practitioners.

Add real reform to that prescription, and the "patient" that is New York State might stand a chance of recovering.

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