- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

In talking about medical care in his State of the Union speech, President Bush uttered one sentence that could translate both into a major campaign issue and a reform that could lead to better health for thousands.

“To protect the doctor-patient relationship and keep good doctors doing good work,” he said, “we must eliminate wasteful and frivolous medical lawsuits.”

Those, of course, are fighting words to trial lawyers, some of whom have been getting rich off their plague-like abuse of the tort system. One way the lawyers fight is by sharing some of this ill-earned wealth in campaign contributions with Democratic officeholders, who have so far blocked meaningful change.

The important thing is to get past the lawyers’ wiles to some basic truths, such as several reported in a superb article in Newsweek this past December:

c While some malpractice suits are obviously legitimate, studies show as many as 80 percent are hogwash. Not a few are wholly outlandish but bring in multimillion-dollar awards anyway. It’s because insurance companies can’t be sure when luck will be with them in this roll of the dice that they settle cases they think they should be able to win.

• Doctors constantly worry about the possibility of a frivolous suit. But the consequence of their trepidation is not improved medicine. Instead, some stay deathly quiet about real mistakes to keep out of sure-enough legal trouble and thereby make it less likely some fixable problems will be fixed. Another reaction is to prescribe treatments that are less a matter of medical need than of legal self-protection. According to the article, the billions spent this way would be sufficient to insure those who now have no health insurance.

It’s important to get information of this kind to voters, most of whom likely have some sense of just how out of kilter our tort system has become.

There is room for debate about remedies, although a step in the right direction would be to enact the proposal for caps on awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages.

Other interesting ideas are floating about, and it would obviously be a quick cure if judges would simply set higher standards for what goes to trial.

Jay Ambrose is chief editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.

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