Send Us Money to Protect Your Right to Sue Doctors

Commentary and developments worth noting on the issue of health care legislation and medical liability reform…

The Washington Times editorialized today in “Obama’s malpractice lip service,” reacting to President Obama’s health care speech last week.

Reformers in both parties want to curb abusive lawsuits that drive medical costs through the roof. Yet Mr. Obama could not even bring himself to say that any suits are abusive, but merely that doctors are for some reason practicing “defensive medicine [that] may be contributing to unnecessary costs.” To help pacify them, the best he could offer was to “direct” Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius to “authorize demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues.”

That is to say, the President was demanding reforms be included in health care legislation, EXCEPT when it came to medical liability reform, which was going to be left to pilot projects overseen by Sibelius — former executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. So if a bill actually becomes law, the non-statutory initiatives can fade away.

Even that faint acknowledgement has prompted push back from the trial lawyers. As the Times reports, “Malpractice plan low on support“:

Trial lawyers bristled that a Democratic president had ceded any ground on the issue.

“It has no place in the debate,” said Anthony Tarricone, president of the American Association for Justice (AJJ) [sic], which lobbies for trial lawyers. “Limited accountability will never improve the quality of health care.”

He said malpractice law was a distraction from the real issues of improving quality of care, reducing medical errors and expanding coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans.

The AAJ initially laid low on the issue, figuring that its allies in Congress could keep any prospects for tort reform out of the bill. But business groups, tort reformers and free-market advocates kept up the pressure, and Howard Dean’s frank admission of the trial lawyers’ political power brought much more attention to the issue.

The AAJ has now decided to make a virtue out of necessity, aggressively raising money from its membership to oppose medical liability reform. Yesterday the group sent out a mass email asking for contributions for its Protecting Patients Rights Campaign, a lobbying campaign to oppose medical malpractice provisions in the health care bill. From the website version:

A contribution to the Protecting Patients Rights Campaign is an investment in your practice and in your clients’ future. All the money raised for this campaign will go directly towards educating lawmakers about the dangers of medical malpractice reform, and towards debunking the myths spewed by the other side. We can win, but we need your help today to make a difference in this fight. We need your help today to make a difference in this fight. Please make a contribution via the attached form.

It’s not unusual for trade associations to raise money by pointing to legislative threat, but the AAJ has been politically ascendant since 2008 elections and hence on the offensive. It’s a change to see them return to the defensive posture they were so accustomed to earlier in the decade.

Clearly the AAJ must think the medical malpractice issue has legs. That, or the lawyers’ elected allies on Capitol Hill are asking for some help. (Contributions are non-tax deductible, so they can be used for both partisan and lobbying purposes.) Or warning against catastrophe is a good way to raise money.

Here’s what they’re fighting to preserve (again from the editorial):

A 2006 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40 percent of medical malpractice lawsuits involve either no actual injuries or no medical error — yet of those meritless cases, more than 27 percent resulted in compensation. Meanwhile, the researchers concluded, “The overhead costs of malpractice litigation are exorbitant.”

Similar observations previously made at this Point of Law post.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Carter Wood says:

    The article cites Andrew Sullivan, who abandoned even his idiosyncratic form of conservatism long ago, and Ken Connor, a trial lawyer. Connor’s arguments are worth considering, but it’s difficult to see how limiting punitive damages — while maintaining economic damages — or requiring an initial expert screening to determine the validity of personal injury claims violate any conservative principles.

  • ahoffmanCJD says:

    Actually, more and more conservatives are beginning to speak out against so-called medical malpractice “reform.” Why? Because it’s decidedly anti-conservative.

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