- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

Plaintiffs’ attorneys better watch out. When Bob Beckel, uber-Democrat and manager of Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, agrees on something with outspoken conservative Sarah Palin, last year’s Republican nominee for vice president, it’s time to take notice. That’s especially true when they agree on a major stumbling block to health care reform, the single biggest issue in American politics today.

Mrs. Palin and Mr. Beckel agree that health care reform can’t move forward unless lawyers have their sails trimmed a bit. They are right.

Writing at RealClearPolitics on Aug. 18, Mr. Beckel acknowledged that Democrats have given the plaintiffs bar a free pass because “we haven’t wanted to bite one of the biggest hands that feed us.” It’s true: Study after study has shown that interests for plaintiffs’ lawyers consistently give about 95 percent, sometimes more, of their federal campaign donations to Democrats. Nevertheless, Mr. Beckel wrote of the lawyers that “it’s time for these boys and girls to put some skin in the healthcare reform game and accept caps on pain and suffering malpractice awards.”

In addition to caps being good politics, Mr. Beckel explained that they are good policy. First, they would help generate savings. Second, they would help end “the restriction to accessible healthcare resulting from malpractice lawsuits,” such as when “pregnant women in rural central Mississippi (for example) travel 65 miles to locate obstetric wards to deliver because family practitioners at local hospitals faced with rising malpractice insurance premiums stopped providing obstetric services.” Meanwhile, he wrote, the proverbial “little guy” often doesn’t even benefit from big lawsuits, which “often result in pitifully small payments to the injured parties” even as the lawyers make fortunes.

Three days later, Mrs. Palin weighed in with a lengthy Facebook post to much the same effect. “We cannot have health care reform without tort reform,” she wrote. She quoted Dr. Stuart Weinstein of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, who said: “When one considers that half of all neurosurgeons — as well as one third of all orthopedic surgeons, one third of all emergency physicians, and one third of all trauma surgeons — are sued each year, is it any wonder that 70 percent of emergency departments are at risk because they lack available on-call specialist coverage?”

In addition to the medical-malpractice-award caps endorsed by Mr. Beckel, Mrs. Palin recommended limiting lawyer contingency fees, adopting a “loser pays” rule for attorneys’ fees and requiring higher standards for “expert” medical testimony in court cases.

All of these reforms, and more, would help keep medical costs lower while improving fairness and service delivery to patients. They also demand only the mildest of sacrifices from the only wealthy group President Obama has not targeted during this debate. If doctors, insurance companies, drug companies, small businesses and individuals who choose not to buy insurance all must contribute something to the cause of health care reform, so too should the lawyers who make out like bandits under today’s system.