Large malpractice verdicts hurt little guys

BY KATIE BIBER

My younger sister, a first-year student at the University of Missouri Medical School, is not the activist type. Alas, she doesn’t care enough about politics to declare her partisan affiliation. She prefers the tough business of saving people’s lives.

But she and other medical students across the country have lately been buzzing about one of the biggest crises to hit the health care industry in decades: the rising cost of malpractice insurance. Over winter break, she told me that she and her classmates must actually consider insurance costs when deciding on a specialty.

The numbers are jaw-dropping. Florida has the highest malpractice insurance premiums in the country at nearly $160,000 per year per doctor, with rates in Dade County reaching as much as $209,000. The premiums are forcing physicians to cut back on services, retire early or move to a state with reforms that control premium costs. The patients they leave behind face increasing difficulty accessing critical care, particularly from obstetricians and doctors in other high-risk specialties.

The American Medical Association has declared a full-blown crisis in a dozen states: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, where doctors recently walked off the job to protest high premium costs. The AMA says more trouble is brewing in many more states, and has declared medical liability reform its number one priority.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why insurance costs are rising. Our half-baked system of malpractice litigation, a boon for trial lawyers, is seriously threatening doctors’ ability to provide care. From 1995 to 2000, the average jury award has swelled more than 70 percent to $3.5 million. Several claims since then have topped $40 million.

Here at Harvard Law School, such numbers probably stimulate some of our salivary glands. But in the real world, lawyers’ rich rewards mean serious problems for everybody else. When exorbitant jury awards yield higher malpractice insurance rates, they shut down hospitals and drive good doctors out of business. They force patients to shoulder the enormous cost of frivolous lawsuits.

Self-styled “regular guy,” North Carolina Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards knows something about this quandary, having spent most of his life creating it. Several networks aimed cameras directly at Edwards as President Bush discussed malpractice reform in his State of the Union address last month, and rightly so. Edwards is a well-known opponent of caps on pain and suffering awards proposed by President Bush and the AMA, an unsurprising stance from a senator whose contributions come mostly from rich trial lawyers.

Choosing not to respond directly to his industry’s contribution to the malpractice mess, Edwards instead smiles at any camera within a ten-mile radius and tells us he’s for the “little guy,” his voice laden with just the right dash of Southern drawl. John Edwards, superhero to little guys everywhere!

What Edwards has yet to understand is that malpractice reform is the best thing for the “little guy.” If we want the proverbial “little guy” to have access to doctors, we have to make sure those doctors can afford to practice. People with law degrees may not have to worry about paying for the best health care. But that is not the way the “little guy” lives.

It matters to the “little guy” if the family obstetrician has to close up shop because the costs of defending against frivolous suits have skyrocketed. It matters to the “little guy” that his wife has to drive 20 miles to get to the nearest hospital that can deliver a baby. Most of all, it matters to the “little guy” that trial lawyers like Senator Edwards are the ones profiting from the awards gouging doctors across America. The “little guy” is affected every single time an exorbitant jury award drives up his health care costs.

If any of us future lawyers really care about standing up for “little guys,” we shouldn’t tie the hands of the doctors trying to care for them.

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