More than 800 doctors in Florida, and a dozen more in Mississippi, stayed off the job Monday to protest rising malpractice insurance costs.
Organizers of the protest in the Palm Beach County area said the doctors were attending a two-day conference about the problem.
Palm Beach hospitals prepared for the absence by adding to their emergency room staff and rescheduling elective surgeries. No immediate problems were reported.
"We want the patients to understand that there's a major crisis and something has to be done soon," said Dr. Stephen Babic, a Delray Beach cardiologist.
Complaints about higher insurance rates, driven in part by big jury awards for malpractice, are being heard from doctors around the country.
In Mississippi, a dozen surgeons took leaves of absence Monday from four Gulf Coast hospitals -- Memorial Hospital, Garden Park Medical Center, Gulf Coast Medical Center and Hancock Medical Center.
An agreement to keep a surgeon on call was scrapped after physicians concluded that the plan could overload surgery units at those hospitals.
The city of Gulfport and Harrison County earlier declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for ambulances to take patients to hospitals in neighboring Louisiana or Alabama. Hancock County followed their example Monday.
At least five patients were redirected to other hospitals, said Chris Cirillo, director of operations for American Medical Response ambulance service.
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove criticized Mississippi's Legislature for not taking action during a special session on tort reform last year.
"My plan included the creation of a compensation fund to address the immediate needs of health-care providers and to ensure health-care coverage for our people," he said.
A task force appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently voted to recommend that jury awards for punitive damages and pain-and-suffering awards in medical malpractice cases be capped at $250,000.
"The quality of care for Floridians will be diminished if we don't deal with medical malpractice reform. In the long run, that's the issue," Bush said Monday.
Dr. Robert Cline, president of the Florida Medical Assn., said 130 patients received malpractice awards worth more than $1 million last year.
"So we're jeopardizing care for 16 million people in the state of Florida because of these 130 claims?" Cline said. "We're approaching Third World medicine where people are traveling 100 miles to get specialized care."
Since 1975, rates for professional liability insurance have increased fivefold across the nation. In comparison, rates for doctors in California, where reforms were passed in 1975, rose only 167% during the same period, Cline said.
Victims of medical malpractice, however, say the industry cannot put a cap on the value of someone's health or life.
Wayne Portch, 56, said he lost both legs below the knee and parts of four fingers after two doctors failed to diagnose an infection over four days. He and his wife said they are looking for accountability.
"We know a lot of good doctors. This isn't about the good doctors. This is about the bad doctors," Paula Portch said. "Our whole life has changed. Should this be allowed to go on?"