Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin • Gloucester County Times / Special to the Times

Let’s say you are a woman over 40 who follows the American Cancer Society guidelines (regardless of the recent controversy about them) and faithfully gets a mammogram each year.

Let’s say you are a woman over 40 who follows the American Cancer Society guidelines (regardless of the recent controversy about them) and faithfully gets a mammogram each year.

What would you do if you tried to make your 2010 appointment, only to learn this test is no longer available anywhere in the state? Would you take a day off from work to travel to Pennsylvania – or forgo your screening entirely?

Unfortunately, this is a very real possibility for New Jersey women. Eighty-nine percent of radiologists surveyed by the New Jersey Medical Care Availability Task Force said that new doctors in their specialty are unwilling to perform mammography or have asked for limited exposure to it.

Or, imagine getting pregnant and having your obstetrician tell you that you fall into a high-risk category. The good news is that you can be effectively treated by a specialist. The bad news? The closest specialist is in upstate New York. Do you leave your family for days at a time? Do you take a risk and allow your regular physician to do the best she can? This is a decision no woman should have to make, but many may face. Hospitals in New Jersey have reported a serious decline in the number of applicants for specialized obstetrics training – and no new candidates means steadily decreasing access to care.

Even as debate about national health care reform rages across the country, we in New Jersey must confront a homegrown crisis: Our state is losing doctors at an alarming rate. With or without a federal mandate, if there are no doctors to treat New Jersey’s patients, the details don’t matter.

Why the exodus of physicians? To a significant degree, they are fleeing malpractice insurance premiums and legal exposure so enormous as to make the practice of many medical specialties in our state near untenable.

Legislators have closed their eyes to these long-standing problems for far too long. Now, legislative action is imperative to stop our medical brain drain and reinvigorate opportunities for the next generation of young doctors.

Adds Tim Martin of the New Jersey Medical Society: “One of the less noticeable, albeit critically important, impacts of the liability crisis is the flight of our graduating medical students. For years, we have heard anecdotal evidence regarding severe declines in the numbers of medical graduates who plan on practicing in New Jersey. We are now able to quantify that trend on our annual student surveys. At the end of the day, New Jersey is spending millions to educate the future of other states’ health care.”

Medical malpractice liability premiums had already spiraled out of control back in 2002, when huge crowds of physicians donned their white coats and demonstrated at the Statehouse to draw attention to the need for reform. Around the same time, Dr. Dolores Williams, an obstetrician, testified before an Assembly joint committee that her insurance premiums – which had escalated from $30,000 to an estimated $72,000 – left her financially unable to continue delivering babies. Her decision to stop, she said, “was based on possibly losing my home, my assets, [and] my ability to fund my children’s college tuition.”

Seven years later, these problems have only gotten worse, not only in obstetrics but in a range of other specialties like orthopedics and neonatology.

“The cumulative effect of medical malpractice claims on the health care system in New Jersey is alarming,” agrees Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance. “Due to skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums and the threat of a lawsuit, hospitals have fewer OB-GYNs willing to work in emergency departments, and fewer specialty physicians willing to work at all.”

Five years ago, a survey of New Jersey�s neurosurgeons indicated that there were only 63 remaining in the state – to serve a population of more than 8.5 million. Someday it could be your teenager who suffers a head injury in a sports or car accident, and urgently needs the care of a neurosurgeon. What are the odds that one would be available?

None of us can continue to take such gambles with our health – not the woman seeking a mammogram, not the pregnant mom, not the parent of an injured teen, and not you.