SALEM - The issue of big medical malpractice awards again is brewing in the Legislature, the setting for a likely doctor vs. lawyer battle over capping damages.

Physicians say insurance costs are spiraling out of sight, and they largely blame a 1999 court ruling striking down a cap on money awards for "pain and suffering," known in the legal trade as noneconomic damages.

Doctors are retiring sooner or dropping high-risk specialties like obstetrics as premiums soar, according to the Oregon Medical Association.

Dr. Deborah Johnson, a Salem gynecologist, stopped practicing obstetrics in January. A notice that her malpractice insurance premium would jump by more than 100 percent this year made her decision.

"I like obstetrics, but not enough to pay to do it," she said in an interview.

Johnson said she coped with 40 percent premium increase in 2002, to about $33,000 a year. She said quitting obstetrics will save her about $25,000 in premiums this year.

"My office wouldn't generate enough funds to pay the increase," Johnson said. "Half of the premium was going to have to come out of my pocket."

"We absolutely need to revisit the cap on noneconomic damages," said Johnson, who never has had a malpractice claim brought against her.

The Oregon Supreme Court in 1999 struck down a law that limited pain and suffering damages to $500,000, saying it violated a constitutional right to have a jury decide the amount.

The Legislature put a measure on the 2000 ballot that would have revised the constitution to permit damage limits, but voters rejected it.

The Oregon Medical Association says while the number of malpractice claims have declined in the past 14 years, the average size of court awards and claims settled out-of-court rose sharply after the court ruling.

The average paid claim against obstetricians-gynecologists was $213,000 before the decision and has jumped to $762,000 since, the OMA says.

"We are in a world of hurt," said Scott Gallant, legislative director for the group. "It's affecting access to doctors."

Johnson said she gets two or three calls a day from women looking for an obstetrician.

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