Fulton County Hospital opened its doors in 1963, and from the very start delivering babies was a service offered. But not any longer. An employee at the hospital, Bethanie Young of Mammoth Spring, gave birth Sept. 20 to Kelli Rae Young, 7 pounds and 11 ounces, at 3:12 p.m. Her birth was the last scheduled delivery at the hospital.
Soaring prices for medical malpractice insurance forced the hospital to eliminate the service.
Young has been employed as a respiratory therapist for the past eight years. Young said, "It's just unique she was the last baby born. My sister and brother were born here, too."
Frank Wise, hospital administrator, said he was glad the last baby delivered was by one of the hospital employees. Wise said he was concerned Young would have to deliver her baby elsewhere but the hospital bartered with the insurance company to extend their time which enabled the hospital to deliver previously scheduled births. Wise said little Kelli's birth was a blessed event for her parents and she had a huge crowd waiting for her delivery.
The hospital's insurance carrier, St. Paul Fire and Marine, pulled out of the malpractice coverage. "When they did so, the hospital had to scramble to find another carrier," said Wise.
Before the crisis, the hospital was paying $26,000 a year for malpractice insurance, but as of May it more than doubled to $56,000.
When St. Paul pulled out it was because obstetrics was considered high risk due to expensive jury awards and trial lawyers. Wise said when a child is born with a defect jurors usually sympathize with the mother. He said jurors believe the mother is never at fault so the liability lies with the doctor and the hospital. Punitive damages are high so lawyers get a lot of money winning these cases, he explained.
Part of the malpractice problem was because the hospital did not employ two doctors who could perform c-section surgeries which was a requirement by the insurance carrier. Even if the hospital had a second surgeon on staff, the hospital would not have been able to afford the rising cost, which would have increased to around $73,000 next year, Wise said.
"There wasn't any choice on our part; we had to comply and stop handling deliveries," Wise said. He said it's a sad time for the hospital because delivery was a part of family medical coverage and is supposed to be an exciting time for parents. He explained that patients with chronic illnesses enter the hospital and die, so births are a joyful event. "We have been here from birth to death, and now it has been taken away," Wise added.
Dr. Jim Bozeman, family practitioner, went to work for the hospital right after his residency in 1974. This is a sad time for Bozeman who was trained for delivery. It was part of his practice, said Wise.
This problem has not only affected medical institutions but patients have felt the effect, too. Now parents will have to drive farther and longer to have their babies delivered and this is a concern. Wise said Calico Rock stopped delivering babies three years ago. He said the big question parents will face is whether they can locate a doctor to deliver a child because many doctors are booked solid because of the crisis.
He explained this is not the first crisis Arkansas has experienced. Around 25 years ago there were several carriers of malpractice insurance and most dropped out of the market. Lack of competition drives up the cost of medical malpractice insurance.
Hospitals across the nation have closed obstetrics wards, and some specialists have abandoned their practices because of escalating malpractice insurance prices. Wise said perhaps one solution to the problem is to place a cap on jury awards which could result in malpractice premiums decreasing.
The American Medical Association and some lawmakers are campaigning for a federal law that would limit claims for pain and suffering to $250,000 in each malpractice case. Some states have imposed lawsuit limits, and the AMA is urging state legislators to take similar action.