A conservative U.S. Senator and Western medical leaders who very often have different prescriptions for treating society's ailments agreed Friday that states are going to pay a whopping price unless the medical malpractice crisis is curbed.

"Health care costs are rising at three times the rate of the general inflation rate, and health insurance premiums rose at the rate of 20 to 70 percent alone last year," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told some 90 leaders of state, county and specialty medical societies in seven Western states.The officials, including officers of the American Medical Association, gathered at the St. George Holiday Inn for their first Rocky Mountain Conference leadership meeting.

The three-day convention, sponsored by the Utah Medical Association, offers leaders a chance to exchange ideas on such critical medical issues as skyrocketing liability premiums.

This, according to Hatch, is one of the main reasons health costs are rising. "We've had a medical malpractice insurance crisis on our hands for the last decade," the senator told the gathering. "This crisis is not only affecting the cost, but the availability and quality of health care throughout the country."

Why has the problem developed?

Hatch, ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said public interest groups blame the insurance companies. The doctors blame the lawyers and the insurance companies, and the insurance companies blame the lawyers. The lawyers say "What crisis?"

But Hatch, an attorney himself, said statistics prove the crisis is real.

He said 900 new medical malpractice lawsuits are filed each day. The average award for malpractice cases now amounts to $300,000 per case, a figure that doesn't include the cost of defending each case.

"The malpractice crisis adds 35 percent to our health care costs because of doctors' fears of having your reputations ruined by a medical suit," he told the group.

Hatch said a study by the American Medical Association confirmed this. It found that 85 percent of doctors admit they order many more medical tests than are necessary.

"Some physicians do it to increase profits, but most order the extra tests to protect themselves from medical malpractice liability," he said.

The result? "Patients are losing access to quality health care," Hatch said. "Physicians are abandoning practices because of exorbitant costs of insurance coverage.

"At the very time the federal government is undertaking several new efforts directed at reducing infant mortality rates, large numbers of physicians are deciding to no longer deliver babies."

Hatch stressed that "if we could just have a part of the resources being wasted because of medical malpractice, we could remedy the $8 billion uncompensated care problem in this country . . . without raising taxes, without adding new costs upon the backs of employers."

Hatch said the solution to the problem rests with insurance companies who have punished even those doctors who have never been sued, and with the press, whose coverage of doctors has convinced many Americans to expect miracles from the medical community.