President George W. Bush has used the limelight ofhis office to renew the call for a major overhaul ofthe nation's ailing medical malpractice system. Thevenue for the president's January 16 speech, whichasked for national legislation to cap jury awards, wasPennsylvania—one of several states experiencing a"malpractice crisis."Malpractice insurance costs havemore than doubled for some Pennsylvania physicians,and nearly 1000 doctors have left the state as a result.Bush talked with some Pennsylvania doctors who arefacing 200% jumps in malpractice premiums.
In July 2002, the president advanced the same proposalin North Carolina, the home of Democratic US Sen.John Edwards, a former trial lawyer who financed his1998 election campaign with the millions he gainedfrom litigating malpractice and product liability suits.Edwards is seeking to replace Bush, recently declaringhis own candidacy for the Democratic nomination forthe White House in 2004. "Excessive jury awards willcontinue to drive up insurance costs, will put good doctorsout of business, or run them out of communities,"the president said. "There are too many lawsuits inAmerica, and there are too many lawsuits filed againstdoctors and hospitals without merit."
Pennsylvania isn't the only state with malpracticeproblems. The American Medical Association (AMA) hasidentified at least a dozen states where medical liabilityhas reached a crisis. In protest, some physicians haveplanned or held work stoppages.
MALPRACTICE PREMIUMS SOAR
President Bush called for a $250,000 cap on pain-and-sufferingawards, similar to a California law that protectsthat state's doctors. The president noted that manydoctors are practicing defensive medicine because ofthe threat of malpractice suits, and the result is highercosts, not only for the patient, but also for programs likeMedicare. He estimated that malpractice awards inflatethe cost of government health programs by more than$25 billion each year. The average medical malpracticejury award now exceeds $1 million.
On 6 occasions, the US House has passed malpracticelegislation. Each time, the US Senate failed to act on it.In some areas, soaring malpractice insurance premiumsare creating doctor shortages among high-risk specialties,particularly OB/GYN, anesthesiology, and neurosurgery."As insurance becomes unaffordable or unavailable,and the legal system produces multimillion-dollarjury awards on a regular basis, physicians are forced tolimit services, leave their practices, or relocate—all ofwhich seriously impede patient access to high-qualityhealth care,"said Richard Corlin, MD, AMA President.
TRIAL LAWYERS DISSENT
Sen. Edwards took Bush to task after the speech,claiming that the president was siding with "his friendsin the insurance industry."With contingency fees thatoften are as high as 30% of an award, plus expenses,successful trial lawyers can amass fortunes. When abotched childbirth resulted in a North Carolina state-record$23.5-million award, John Edwards was theplaintiff's counsel. He went on to break his own recordwith a $30-million award for another client. That year,North Carolina passed a law that capped punitive damages,avoiding crisis that has overtaken Mississippi,which just passed such a law. Mississippi OB/GYN physicians,faced with premiums as high as $110,000, werechoosing to move or retire. Women in these states wereforced to hunt for doctors to deliver their babies.
New York Times
Trial lawyers are more than willing to put the blameelsewhere—on the side of the insurance companies. Butthere's little doubt whose side the trial lawyers are on.According to a report, of the $3.4 millionin 2002 political contributions by the American TrialLawyers Association, 90% went to Democrats.