- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

It's happening all over the country. Plaintiffs' lawyers are suing and collecting. This means insurance companies are having to pay. Which means doctors and hospitals are being charged higher and higher premiums for their malpractice insurance. Which means that, in state after state, doctors can't afford to practice and hospitals have to cut back on services. Which means people who need medical attention don't get it.

Maybe we ought to start putting labels on some lawyers, like the kind on the side of cigarette packs: "Warning: Immense jury awards can be dangerous to obstetric care and trauma centers."

Lest you think that's an exaggeration, check out this front-page story in Sunday's New York Times: "Rise in insurance forces hospitals to shutter wards."

It's happening across the country, according to The Times:

"In the last few weeks, the only trauma center in Las Vegas closed for 10 days; the Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford, Fla., reduced surgical procedures for five days; and a handful of rural clinics across Mississippi sat empty in the summer heat for part of a week. All the problems were because of problems with problems with malpractice insurance.

"In all, more than 1,300 health-care institutions have already been affected, according to a survey by the American Hospital Association. The survey, released in June, found that 20 percent of the association's 5,000 member hospitals and other health-care organizations had cut back on services and 6 percent had eliminated some units."

If a single phrase leapt out of this alarming story by The Times' Joseph Treaster, it was: "So far no deaths have been attributed to the cutbacks ." So far. But it may be only a matter of time.

In Mississippi, the chief executive of that state's hospital association notes the toll this legal virus is taking in that state: "Our trauma system has basically fallen apart. There is a so-called Golden Hour, in a which a patient with a serious head injury needs to see a specialist like a neurosurgeon, and in some areas of our state that service is no longer available."

A similar deterioration in health care can be found across the country: from West Virginia to Alabama to Washington state, in New York City, Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale .

The complaints have grown familiar by now. They come from doctors ready to pack it in, and hospital administrators at the end of their tether. And the facts back them up. The conclusion becomes inescapable: There's a health crisis in the legal making.

What's needed is clear enough: an emergency lawyerectomy. Like the $250,000 cap that California put on awards for pain and suffering back in the 1970s. Which is why doctors are leaving neighboring Nevada to practice there.

California's example needs to be emulated, for health's sake. Mississippi's governor, Ronnie Musgrove, is expected to call a special session of that state's legislature to do something about the out-of-sight costs of medical malpractice insurance in his state. Nobody is trying to limit awards for actual damages, but punitive damages are now damaging the public health most of all.

The Bush administration has tried to get Congress' attention as this medical/legal crisis developed. It suggested limiting out-of-control jury awards, but was stymied by the Democrats in the Senate.

When one party has been largely captured by a special interest in this case, the trial lawyers' lobby the chances for reform begin to resemble those of a poor patient in urban Philadelphia or rural Mississippi.

Let's hope the Senate gets another chance to cap jury awards beyond actual damages before more obstetricians take down their shingles, and more hospitals shut down vital services.

In the meantime, the prognosis for reform remains poor. Not every plague, it turns out, is the result of micro-organisms. This one is spread by lawyers.

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