Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Illinois has become a malpractice minefield for physicians, especially those in high-risk specialties. Here’s a particularly notable example: Several years ago, Dr. Lenard Rutkowski, a neurosurgeon in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, faced a malpractice lawsuit. During an operation, the lawsuit alleged, Dr. Rutkowski had removed an extra cervical disk. Months later, the patient complained of pain and discomfort in his neck. After years of litigation, the lawsuit resulted in a $5.6 million judgment against Dr. Rutkowski, far over and beyond his $1 million in insurance coverage. The patient made up the difference with Dr. Rutkowski’s office furniture, home furniture, company car and office building. A lien was placed on his house, and his checking account and IRAs were frozen. By the fall of 2002, Dr. Rutkowski was forced to file for bankruptcy not only on behalf of his corporation, but also for himself. Now, his wife takes out loans to pay the bills.

Frightened by Dr. Rutkowski’s nightmare, the last neurosurgeons in southern Illinois tendered their resignations as of May. As one doctor put it: “You could almost hear the pitter-patter of neurosurgeons leaving Illinois.” According to Ted Kanellakes of the Illinois State Neurosurgical Society, virtually the entire southern half of Illinois now lacks access to neurosurgeons, which means that patients don’t have access to care for head trauma, aneurysms and brain tumors. Skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates, along with the possibility of losing one’s home and assets at the whim of a jury, are prompting the mass exodus.

The American Medical Association reports some troubling trends as a result: Fewer physicians now enter high-risk specialties; those who do tend to avoid states, like Illinois, with sky-high insurance premiums. For patients, this means poorer care and higher costs. The good news is that in states with caps on damage awards, like California, insurance rates are relatively stable. The rest of the country should quickly follow suit.

Where does the Kerry-Edwards ticket stand on all this? Both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry, who have taken in millions from trial lawyers, have repeatedly voted against limiting malpractice lawsuits. The Kerry campaign Web site, in characteristically ambiguous fashion, informs us: “The Kerry plan will hold down malpractice premiums by requiring an impartial review of a claim before an individual could file suit and by eliminating punitive damages except in egregious cases. Kerry’s plan will not put a cap on legitimate damage awards.” Since juries deem which claims are “legitimate” and which cases are “egregious,” not Mr. Kerry or Mr. Edwards, one can easily infer that “The Kerry plan” offers no reform.

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