SALEM &

The state Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation carried by Sen. Alan Bates meant to improve an existing program to keep the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance from driving doctors from small towns, especially those who work in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics.




On a 29-1 vote, lawmakers agreed with the Ashland Democrat and family physician that a 2003 law intended to lure more doctors to rural parts of Oregon needed to be retooled.




Bates told the Senate that he became incensed a year ago after hearing the highly publicized revelations that some of the program's beneficiaries were wealthy specialists with thriving practices, not physicians in distinctly remote areas of the state providing essential care.




Among them: Dr. Scott Young, a plastic surgeon, who lives in an 11,000-square-foot mansion surrounded by 1,700 acres just north of Ashland.




"This is a good program and there were some unintended consequences; we've resolved those," Bates said in an interview before the Senate vote. "The purpose (of the program) is not to lose primary care and obstetrics in rural and underserved areas of Oregon."




If approved, physicians who work in "urbanized" areas of the state, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, would no longer be eligible for the program, with the exception of obstetricians, nurse practitioners and certified midwives in Ashland, whom Bates was able to protect in the legislation because of the "vital service" they provide, particularly to low-income mothers.




Because of the proximity to Medford, other types of physicians in Ashland would no longer be eligible to participate in the program, which is administered by SAIF Corp. and funded by an assessment employers pay for their workers' compensation insurance.




Obstetricians in rural areas and Ashland would continue receiving 80 percent of their malpractice premiums while other specialists would receive 15 percent of their malpractice costs rather than the 40 percent they receive currently.




General practitioners who do not deliver babies would receive a 40 percent subsidy while general practitioners who do obstetrics would receive a 60 percent rebate from the state.




Set to end in four years, the program requires that its beneficiaries provide care to the uninsured and those on Medicaid and Medicare, the federal insurance programs.




"This is an improvement to a great program," Bates told his colleagues.




Sen. Roger Beyer, R-Molalla, was the only no vote, objecting to businesses being assessed a fee so doctors can be reimbursed for their expenses.




Senate Bill 183 now moves to the state House of Representatives for consideration.




covers the state Legislature for The Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com