There has been increasing media coverage of the growing crisis of medical care in New Mexico. In New Mexico, 32 of the 33 counties are federally designated Health Care Professional Shortage Areas. In primary care and many specialties, there are plenty of stories of patients who do not have timely access to a doctor. Recent stories highlighted the 700 doctors who left the state from 2017-21. Given this background and with the second-highest percentage of physicians close to retirement, we cannot afford to lose any more doctors.
As a native New Mexican, I practice here to be in my home, and surrounded by family and friends, many of whom I treat as patients. However, New Mexico is a challenging place to practice medicine for many reasons, including the significantly higher Medicaid populations and lower Medicaid reimbursement than in surrounding states, and the higher medical malpractice insurance premiums.
The 2021 Medical Malpractice Act, House Bill 75, was well-intentioned, but caused medical malpractice insurance premiums to soar. Additionally, the act classified some outpatient facilities in the same group as hospitals, which will make malpractice coverage impossible to obtain and force more medical practices to close, and even more doctors to leave the state.
There are several solutions to the insurance problems brought on by HB 75. Opposition to these new changes to medical malpractice focus on select patient stories of loss rather than the well-being of the overall medical system, or even the Patient Compensation Fund. Few people in or out of medicine would disagree that patients should have their malpractice cases subjected to review and, if warranted, receive just compensation. That is why the Patient Compensation Fund was created, by providing coverage for lifetime medical care. Instead, it is being targeted by trial attorneys who have driven many of these changes. With no cap on the fees they charge, this has become a piggy bank to target. Insurance companies are now unable to offer coverage to doctors and many outpatient facilities with these much higher rates, as they are classified with hospitals. Curiously, none of the supporters of these increased caps has proposed capping attorneys fees or subjecting them to judicial review at trial.
Physicians are tasked with responding to new challenges in health care. We are currently providing more care in the outpatient setting, where, for many patients, it is more convenient, comfortable and safe, and, for insurance payors, results in less cost than a hospital setting. These positive changes should be reflected in the malpractice legislation, including Senate Bill 296.
As physicians, we seek to help patients and potentially heal them. We want our state to be a vibrant place to live for all New Mexicans. We want to be able to retain and attract the best and brightest doctors instead of ranking last in so many categories. One important component is ensuring the Patient Compensation Fund is financially sound without passing an unreasonable burden on to physicians. Multiple medical groups may have to close by Jan. 1 if changes are not made. Remember, these doctors are the ones you trust to give you and your family the care you deserve. Not having them will continue to topple the dominos until there are too few left standing to make a meaningful difference.