Year later, doctors say insurance still problem

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

NATCHEZ &045; A new state law went into effect one year ago today to answer pleas for medical malpractice relief. With its cap on punitive damages set at $500,000, the law, passed in the state Legislature in 2002, was hailed as a start, however, not a complete recovery of an ailing health care system in Mississippi.

&uot;Most insurance companies have canceled their policies and left the state,&uot; Dr. Tom Weed, a Natchez surgeon and activist for tort reform, said in mid 2003. &uot;Those remaining have stopped issuing new policies and have increased premiums from 50 to 200 percent.&uot;

Two Southwest Mississippi counties &045; Claiborne and Jefferson &045; had earned reputations as &uot;jackpot justice&uot; hot spots, where plaintiff attorneys from around the country had learned they could try medical malpractice cases with stunning results. Legislators hoped the new law would curtail those high-profile, high-stakes cases, many involving complaints against pharmaceutical companies.

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&uot;Too little too late&uot; is how many physicians and others working in health care described the Mississippi bill. Still, it was a start. And it became even more important when Congress failed to pass a federal medical malpractice bill. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill early in 2003; the Senate blocked it in July.

Some doctors retired or left the state as their insurance companies pulled out of Mississippi. Private practices and hospitals continued to recruit, however, and several new doctors chose Natchez in 2003, including obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Donielle Daigle.

Daigle said in mid 2003, when she moved to Natchez with her husband, Stacy Dennis, a physician’s assistant, that the area had all the right ingredients for both her and her husband’s future careers in health care.

At Alcorn State University School of Nursing, the retirement of Dr. Frances Henderson as dean of the school in June marked the end of an era at the university.

Henderson, who came to Alcorn to head the baccalaureate nursing program, became dean two years later, in 1988. &uot;When I came, there were many more in the associate-degree program than in the baccalaureate program,&uot; she said. &uot;Now it is just about equal.&uot;

Further, there was not a master’s program. That addition has been popular and successful, added in January 1995. &uot;In 1998, we added the nurses education track,&uot; Henderson said. &uot;And we also are adding a gerontology nurse practitioner track.&uot;

A nursing shortage not only in Mississippi but nationwide has put pressure on nursing schools to attract and educate talented students. That is one reason Dr. Mary Hunter Hill returned to her native Mississippi in 1991 and accepted the position vacated by Henderson in 2003.

&uot;I think this position was my destiny now that I reflect on the path I had to tread to get here,&uot; she said. &uot;Once I made the decision to accept the position, I became very tranquil. It’s almost like a calling. This is the place for me at this time of my life.&uot;

Classes began in August at the nursing school. Enrollment was up. Hill was pleased. &uot;I’ve always shared with students how I have loved being a nurse &045; now all 36 years of it,&uot; she said.

A native of Enterprise, she received her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; her master’s degree in medical-surgical nursing from the University of Maryland; and her doctorate in nursing administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has taught at Columbia University School of Nursing in New York City; Adelphi University School of Nursing in Garden City, N.Y.; Tuskegee Institute School of Nursing; and the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Nursing.

Two medical building projects were in the news in 2003 &045; one building completed, the other receiving the go-ahead only days before the end of the year.

A group of Natchez doctors came together to build an outpatient clinic on the Vidalia Riverfront, where the attractive building has caught the attention of anyone crossing the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge during 2003.

In December, Dr. John White and Dr. Rus Fairbanks, two of the physician-owners, saw the first patients to enter Riverpark Medical Center, an ambulatory surgical center, which also includes doctor offices and state-of-the-art technology, such as MRI, CT scanners and digital mammography.

Among others who will have offices and see patients in the new clinic are Dr. Randy Tillman, Dr. Barry Tillman and Dr. Fred Emrick.

Meanwhile, another group of Natchez doctors saw its two-year push for a new doctors office building come to fruition in late December, when Adams County supervisors approved an agreement to allow the building to be constructed on land adjacent to Natchez Regional Medical Center.

The board agreed in July to sell 25,560 square feet of land next to the hospital for $136,000 to MD Properties LLC, the doctor-developer group that will oversee the $5- to $6-million project.

Work should begin immediately, with construction of the three-story building estimated to take 10 to 12 months. The building will replace Medical Arts Building, which was built in the 1960s.

The new building, which will be south of the hospital and set slightly back from the existing doctors building, will house 15 to 20 doctors and will feature a corridor that connects it to the hospital.