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Pennsylvania dentists must now obtain malpractice coverage

Megan Guza
| Saturday, July 7, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Dr. Werrin poses for a portrait with some models of teeth in the lab of his Oakland dentist office on Thursday, July 5, 2012.  A new law just passed in the state will require all Pennsylvania dentists to carry malpractice insurance.  Dr. Werrin has had malpractice insurance since he began practicing. 
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Dr. Werrin poses for a portrait with some models of teeth in the lab of his Oakland dentist office on Thursday, July 5, 2012. A new law just passed in the state will require all Pennsylvania dentists to carry malpractice insurance. Dr. Werrin has had malpractice insurance since he began practicing. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Dr. Werrin poses for a portrait from his dentist chair with a statue of a tooth in the lab of his Oakland dentist office on Thursday, July 5, 2012.  A new law just passed in the state will require all Pennsylvania dentists to carry malpractice insurance.  Dr. Werrin has had malpractice insurance since he began practicing. 
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Dr. Werrin poses for a portrait from his dentist chair with a statue of a tooth in the lab of his Oakland dentist office on Thursday, July 5, 2012. A new law just passed in the state will require all Pennsylvania dentists to carry malpractice insurance. Dr. Werrin has had malpractice insurance since he began practicing. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Patients might be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania has become just the 10th state to require dentists to carry malpractice insurance.

“That seems ridiculously unsafe for someone who's poking around in my mouth,” said Ross Marshall, 25, of Mt. Washington. “This gives peace of mind.”

The 6,000-member Pennsylvania Dental Association supported the bill, which the House and Senate passed unanimously and Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law on June 22. It takes effect in August.

Rob Pugliese, spokesman for the association, said most dentists have malpractice insurance. Experts testified at House hearings that up to 5 percent of dentists in the state do not.

“Our members don't look at it as a huge change,” Pugliese said.

Under the law, practicing dentists must carry insurance of at least $1 million per claim. The national average of a claim is about $30,000, according to the association.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Pennsylvania's 2,777 reports of dental malpractice between Sept. 1, 1990, and Dec. 31, 2010 ranked third-highest in the nation during that period.

“A lot of people have fears or apprehensions about going to the dentist,” said Kelley Cherok, 24, of West Mifflin. “The enforcement of this might give them a little peace of mind about going.”

The law exempts dentists who are not actively practicing but want to keep a current license, and makes allowances for those whose employer provides malpractice insurance or dentists working in a community-based setting, Pugliese said.

“That really satisfies a lot of people,” he said.

Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, introduced the bill in summer 2011 after learning Pennsylvania lacked such a law.

“It made no sense to me,” she said.

The late Sen. Mike O'Pake championed such a law after reading a newspaper story about a Reading dentist who disfigured a patient. The dentist had no malpractice insurance, could not pay damages from a lawsuit and declared bankruptcy, Vance said.

Downtown dentist S. Rand Werrin said he has purchased malpractice insurance his entire career — more than 40 years.

“I think every dentist that is ethical and active should be protected,” he said. “There are too many lawyers in America that are always interested in suing dentists.”

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5644 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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