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Court upholds tax to pay for birth-injury insurance

A $250 tax on all physicians, even those who don't deliver babies, to finance a malpractice insurance pool for obstetricians is constitutional, a split state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan was created by lawmakers in 1988 as part of medical malpractice reform.

The no-fault system provides coverage against certain neurological injuries suffered by infants at birth. The pool is optional for obstetricians, who must pay at least $5,000 a year to join, but the annual $250 fee on all physicians is mandatory. Hospitals are also assessed $50 for every baby born.

Several physicians who practice in areas other than obstetrics challenged the law. They argued it was unconstitutional because they benefited no more from the plan than non-physicians, who aren't taxed to support the pool.

Such differing treatment violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law, the challengers argued.

But in Thursday's 4-3 opinion, Florida's high court disagreed, upholding lower court rulings.

"There is a rational basis for the statutory assessment of all physicians even though they do not practice obstetrics," the unsigned opinion reads.

The court said all physicians "rely on efficiently operated hospitals. The record is clear that when there is an unavailability of obstetrical services, the operations of hospitals are seriously disrupted."