- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

Just when you thought the trial bar had infected malpractice reform with a resistant strain of obstructionism, the immune system of the body politic is poised to strike back. The results of the recent American Survey (conducted in early February among 600 voters; margin of error plus/minus 4.0 percent) suggest that the debate over medical malpractice is no longer viewed as a tournament of greed, pitting rich doctors against even wealthier trial attorneys. As long as the struggle was confined to that small group of combatants, the status quo prevailed. But the contagion has spread, spilling into America's living rooms on the nightly news with stories about doctors going on strike and hospital emergency rooms where patients receive delayed or deferred care.
In fact, voters seem to understand that unrestrained litigation raises health-care costs, jeopardizes access, and most ominously for those who hope to ward off reform efforts seriously impairs the quality of the health care delivered. More specifically, a majority of voters six in 10 made the crucial connection and concluded that costs associated with medical malpractice were affecting their health-care costs. Even more surprising was that most draw a strong linkage between medical malpractice costs and health-care quality; almost three-quarters of the respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the deterioration in the quality of health care due to rising medical malpractice costs.
In short, it appears that a sizable portion of voters fully grasp the impact of a broken malpractice system and want it fixed. This emergent salience should send policymakers a clear signal that the time and environment is ripe for reforms including placing caps on non-economic damages like those proposed by President Bush and some in Congress.
Those sorts of reforms seem to more closely track voters' thoughts. For example, while people blame trial lawyers for a sizable amount of the problem (when offered several choices, 45 percent of respondents noted that trial lawyers were to blame when doctors were forced to strike or quit), respondents thought that capping jury awards (36 percent) was a better fix than reining in trial lawyers (12 percent). This suggests that while trial lawyers are in a bad spot on this issue, people are still (!) reluctant to put them, as a group, on a leash.
Nevertheless, this strong voter concern about how malpractice policies affect whether they can see a doctor, the quality of the care and how much they pay is a lethal combination of attitudes that should embolden reform advocates.

Gary J. Andres is a senior managing partner with the Dutko Group and a former White House senior lobbyist. Michael McKenna is co-founder of Andres-McKenna Research and a vice president at the DutkoGroup.E-mail: [email protected]

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