Insurance Putting OB/GYNs

— Doctors have long complained of high malpractice insurance costs, but now they say it's driving some of them out of business.

The small town of Cleveland, Miss., has lost its only two OB/GYN doctors. The doctors' insurance premiums jumped from $30,000 a year each to $150,000 a year, forcing them to close their practice.

Hundreds of women will be left without a nearby doctor to deliver their babies and the nearest hospital, already facing its own shortage of OB/GYNs, is miles away.

Nationwide, malpractice insurance rates for OB/GYNs have jumped more than 160 percent in the last decade, prompting record numbers of obstetricians to quit delivering babies. The increases are due to huge malpractice settlements that have doubled in the last decade, to an average of $400,000 per case, forcing many insurers to deny OB/GYNs coverage.

The situation is so bad that the American Medical Association says it has reached crisis proportions in nine states. The Mississippi Delta is considered one of the worst-off regions in the nation. Doctors in the Delta saw their premiums rise as much as 400 percent last year.

This is not how the two doctors in Cleveland, Mark Blackwood and Brad Baugh, thought their small-town practice would end.

Their malpractice insurance rate went up 500 percent, and the doctors say can't afford it. So they are closing their practice after delivering nearly 500 babies.

"We're not going to be able to continue being doctors here," Blackwood told his patients recently. "This is our last day."

"This means I will no longer be able to practice medicine and I will no longer be your doctor," Baugh told the patients. Afterward he tearfully said in an interview, "This is the last day of a lot of emotion and pain and — sorry, it is just tough."

Many of the doctors' patients are within a few months of giving birth, and now they no longer have an official doctor.

"As a woman, you have an OB/GYN doctor, you develop a bond with that doctor that words cannot explain," said Lee Tedford, the doctors' office manager. "And that is not something that you can say, 'Well, just find another doctor.' It's not possible, you know. That bond is not going to be there."

Not an Isolated Case

The Cleveland situation is not an isolated case. Doctors say it is a rapidly growing problem across the country, as thousands of obstetricians are quickly getting out of the business of delivering babies.

"In the past year, at least 10 to 20 percent of all OB/GYNs in the country have either stopped delivering babies, stopped doing gynecological surgery, or even given up practice altogether," said Dr. Thomas Purdon, former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The trend has many doctors worried about the repercussions for mothers and their newborns.

Baugh and Blackwood say the consequences are hardest on their patients. "We can find another job.... We don't want to, but we can," said Blackwood. "It's unfair to the patients. A lot of them don't have anywhere else to turn."

The doctors' patients will now have to travel 40 miles to the nearest obstetrician, and they don't know how much longer he'll be staying in practice.

Blackwood and Baugh had hoped to the last minute to find a way to keep the practice going. But for now, it is out of their hands.