By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/14/2004 7:42:31 PM ET 2004-05-14T23:42:31

Kristi Fossett is expecting her second child in October.  But in her hometown of Enid, Okla., —population 47,000 — they are running out of doctors to deliver newborn babies.

Fossett’s own doctor is leaving town in June. “Hopefully I can find another doctor,” she said.

Obstetrician Terry Badzinski notified all of his patients, including Kristi Fossett, that he’s closing his practice.  The reason: the high cost of malpractice insurance premiums.

“My underwriter suspects that probably next year it will cost me $120,000 to $160,000 for malpractice insurance,” said Dr. Badzinski.  He says he can’t afford that.

In recent years, six obstetricians have been delivering about 1,200 babies a year in Enid and the surrounding county.  By this summer, four out of the six will quit or retire.  They blame lawsuits and big jury awards.

The state Medical Association claims malpractice payouts in Oklahoma doubled from $26 million in 2000 to $52 million in 2003.

According to Dr. Jack Beller of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, “Unless we do something, there is going to be a loss of access to care, primarily with obstetrical care.”

It’s a national problem.  An American Medical Association survey last year found that among doctors in high-risk specialties, including obstetrics, neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery, 65 percent of them made changes in the way they practice medicine to reduce the risk of malpractice lawsuits.

Trial lawyers in Oklahoma say the problem is not caused by jury awards.  They blame greedy insurance companies for the rising cost of malpractice premiums.  "This is a phony malpractice crisis,” said one lawyer.

But it seems very real to some expectant mothers in Enid.  The shortage there is a hot topic for Kristi Fossett and other expectant mothers at the maternity clothing store she owns.

What kind of feedback does she get from her customers?  Are they concerned?  “They’re terrified,” Fossett said.  “Some of them are already on their third doctor.”

David Weaver and Frank Barnett are the two remaining obstetricians.  The hospital is paying their malpractice insurance premiums. 

“I’d probably be out there looking like the other physicians in town,” said Dr. Weaver.  “I’d be looking to get the heck out of here.”

While this small city scrambles to find more obstetricians, general practitioners will help with deliveries — as long as they can afford to pay for malpractice insurance.

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