- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

It’s an issue that Democrats would rather not deal with as they shape a health care overhaul bill. Yet a new Associated Press poll says most Americans support curbs on medical malpractice lawsuits.

The AP poll found that 54 percent favor making it harder to sue doctors and hospitals for mistakes taking care of patients, while 32 percent are opposed. The rest are undecided or don’t know.

But congressional Democrats are reluctant to press forward on the issue. They don’t want to upset a valuable political constituency - trial lawyers - even if President Obama has said he believes that fear of being sued leads doctors to practice defensive medicine, driving up costs for everyone.

Support for limits on malpractice lawsuits cuts across political lines, with 58 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans in favor. Democrats are more divided. Still, 47 percent said they favor making it harder to sue, while 37 percent are opposed.

The survey was conducted by Stanford University with the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Limits on jury awards in malpractice cases could reduce the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, because doctors caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients would order up fewer tests to guard against being sued.

“In this country, there are just too many people who are just out for a quick buck,” said Christine Vasquez, 67, a retiree from Clarkston, Mich., in a follow-up interview. “I think our insurance costs would go way down if [doctors] didn’t have to be so scared to be sued all the time.”

In the poll, 59 percent said they thought at least half the tests doctors order are unnecessary, ordered only because of fear of lawsuits.

The issue pits two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington against each other: doctors and trial lawyers.

Doctors complain that fear of frivolous lawsuits prompts them to order tests that patients don’t really need: an MRI for back pain, for example, when an X-ray would suffice. They say malpractice insurance premiums are so high in parts of the country that some doctors avoid certain areas.

Lawyers argue that limits on lawsuits infringe on the constitutional right of each citizen to have his or her day in court. And they point out that 44,000 to 98,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors - from misdiagnosis to getting the wrong medication.

Republicans have been sympathetic to the complaints of doctors, while Democrats tend to line up with the lawyers. Over the years, the two sides have fought each other to a standstill.

The poll was based on landline and cell phone interviews with 1,502 adults from Oct. 29 to Nov. 8. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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