Malpractice tort reform
I write this memo a week after President Bush's State of the Union address and the day after doctors in New Jersey closed their offices in a "job action" that's scheduled to last three to five days. Their aim: to drive home the need for malpractice tort reform.
Their timing couldn't be better. If the ads that ran in local newspapers the week or so preceding the slowdown didn't draw attention to the malpractice crisis and the need for reform, the president certainly did.
"To improve our health care system," he said, "we must address one of the prime causes of higher cost, the constant threat that physicians and hospitals will be unfairly sued. Because of excessive litigation, everybody pays more for health care, and many parts of America are losing fine doctors. No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit. I urge Congress to pass medical liability reform."
In the House of Representatives that night, as the guest of President and Mrs. Bush, was internist/pediatrician Kurt W. Kooyer. You read his story in our December 23 issue ("Why Dr. Kooyer had to move"). Last year, Kooyer left the doctor-poor section of Mississippi he'd served for nearly eight years, fed up with a liability climate that had forced him to settle one suit and saw him named in another from which he was eventually dropped because the plaintiff didn't even know she'd sued him.
"When you have patients who sue even though there's nothing wrong with them," Kooyer told us, "and lawyers who sue doctors who they know have done nothing wrong, that's a departure from personal ethics. It's not so much a crisis of tort as it is a crisis of character."
Whether a moral or a financial crisis, the malpractice mess could be solved if the president is willing to put his political muscle where his mouth is. The day after the State of the Union address, he brought up the topic again in a speech in Grand Rapids, MI. "I've come to the conclusion that this is a federal issue," he said. "We need a national, federal medical liability policy. . . . We need reasonable caps. We need to make sure that this lottery, this lawsuit lottery doesn't ruin the health care for citizens all across our country."
Doctors in New Jersey are trying to get patients on their side. It remains to be seen whether public support will be forthcoming or exactly how many patients will have filled out the "Dear Legislator" letters urging tort reform that many doctorsmy own includedmade available in waiting rooms. But now that even the president is urging patients to action"I need your help," he said to the audience in Michigan. "The trial lawyers are powerful. . . . You need to write your senators"maybe tort reform isn't an unattainable goal after all.
Marianne Mattera. Memo from the Editor: Tort reform?. Medical Economics Feb. 21, 2003;80:9.