Bad Bush decisions add to malpractice mess

BY MIKE MCCARTHY

As a John Edwards supporter, I’m thrilled that HLS GOP President Katie Biber is threatened enough by his candidacy to have singled him out for attack in last week’s RECORD. But malpractice reform reveals how President Bush “solves” problems by attacking the symptoms that afflict his elite constituencies, rather than addressing the root problems themselves that affect all Americans. Opposing this tendency to see everything through the lens of the privileged is the rationale for Senator Edwards’ candidacy — yes, ensuring a voice for “regular people.”

We agree that high malpractice premiums are distorting the market for health care, and that soaring premiums, although mostly attributable to uncompetitive insurance markets, are partially driven by large verdicts for those injured. Given these facts, the President sees a very narrow problem — doctors and insurers are held accountable by juries for negligence, and damage awards are cutting into profit margins. Assuming doctors can do no wrong, these verdicts can only be the result of “frivolous” suits brought by dastardly trial lawyers.

Doctors claim a cap on damages would block “frivolous” lawsuits, but it does no such thing. The proposed reforms would limit recovery only in cases with a seriously injured patient and obvious medical error, which a judge has found legally sufficient, and for which a jury has awarded damages for pain and suffering. Republicans seem to think even these lawsuits are frivolous, and herein lies the problem.

Avoidable medical errors kill and maim thousands of Americans every year. A real solution would attack the culture of secrecy that allows a few dangerous doctors to continue practicing, protected by their peers. The most obvious way to reduce jury verdicts, premiums and health care costs would be to reduce the number of people hurt by bad medicine. But tort reformers funded by doctors and the insurance industry dismiss the larger societal problem as frivolous, in favor of stopping the effects of mistakes on their bottom line.

The bottom line is that tort reformers don’t like juries. But for regular people, the jury is one of the few institutions through which they can make their voice heard, and for patients, it is the only way to hold doctors accountable. To limit the role of the jury, for no purpose but to protect doctors’ wallets and whack a potential political rival, smacks of, well, class warfare.

Unlike some Democrats, I don’t think President Bush has a secret, evil desire to take from the poor and give to the rich. But his background and lack of intellectual curiosity leave him hyper-attuned to the aspects of problems that affect the privileged, and less aware of underlying problems that affect everybody. The President “solves” racial divisions by attacking race-conscious admissions policies because of their marginal effect on some white candidates. Never mind the root problem of pervasive inequality in primary and secondary education. He “solves” energy problems by promoting drilling in Alaska because it benefits oil companies. Never mind the root problem of excessive consumption contributing to security and environmental problems worldwide. And he “solves” medical malpractice by limiting the liability of doctors concerned by costs they can’t pass on to patients. Never mind that just as many, if not more, people will be crippled under the “reformed” system as under the old.

Biber pointed out that, as a multimillionaire lawyer, John Edwards is not exactly a “little guy.” But Edwards doesn’t claim that he himself is a regular guy, just that those are the people he will fight for. We don’t want our Presidents to be regular — we want leaders who are accomplished, with a bold vision for America’s future. Both President Bush and Senator Edwards fit that definition.

But it matters how you get there. Edwards wasn’t born as an elite lawyer — he grew up in a rural area, from humble origins and made the most of his opportunities. In his professional life, he has successfully fought for individuals against the powerful using the jury system, the only voice many people have. Like the President, he has an understanding of the elite world of money and privilege that, in many ways, drives America’s continued growth and leadership. But unlike the President, Senator Edwards also understands Americans in more typical circumstances, who work for wages and raise children and can’t take things like jobs or health care or good public education for granted. That’s what giving a voice to regular people is about, and it’s something the President will never understand.

Mike McCarthy is co-president of the HLS Democrats.

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