Wisconsin high court to rule on liability fund raid

Physicians are asking the court to reverse a $200 million withdrawal from the compensation fund by lawmakers trying to close a state budget hole.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Feb. 5, 2010

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Wisconsin physicians earned another shot at overturning what they say was an illegal $200 million raid on the state's medical liability compensation fund to balance the state budget.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in January agreed to hear the Wisconsin Medical Society's lawsuit contesting 2007 legislation that transferred the money from the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund (link).

In accepting the case, the high court said in a statement that its decision "would have statewide impact."

The case is not unique; doctors in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have engaged in similar legal battles.

As in some other states, Wisconsin physicians and other health care professionals contribute annually to a medical liability pool intended to keep insurance rates affordable and compensate injured patients.

"There are no taxpayer dollars in the fund," said George M. Lange, MD, chair of the WMS' board of directors. Created in 1975, the pool has had a "stabilizing influence in the recruitment and retention of physicians," he said, calling it critical to maintaining access to care.

Wisconsin state officials have defended taking money from the fund as necessary to pay for other health care programs. The medical society countered in its lawsuit that the transfer amounted to an illegal tax on doctors, and they are asking the court to restore the funds.

A Dane County trial court declined to do so in 2008, saying physicians pay mandatory fees to the fund for insurance coverage -- a benefit they already receive -- but have no other right to the money. WMS appealed the ruling and appellate judges, without addressing the issue, sent the case directly to the high court.

Oral arguments in Wisconsin Medical Society v. Morgan have not been scheduled.

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