Op/Ed: The case against caps

Op/Ed: The case against caps
Thursday, December 1, 2005

By Laurie Beacham
Each year, up to 98,000 people die from medical errors in hospitals alone. Hundreds of thousands more are injured, many in catastrophic and life-altering ways. While most doctors are devoted and competent professionals, there are many reasons a doctor might not meet an appropriate standard of care—some a result of being human and thus making inevitable mistakes in judgment, and some more egregious. While medical errors do not take away from doctors' tremendous achievements or the respect most of them deserve, innocent patients whose lives are destroyed by medical negligence deserve to be adequately compensated. Capping non-economic compensation absolutely prevents that from happening.
Non-economic damages cover very real injuries such as brain damage, loss of limb, loss of child-bearing ability, and blindness. In addition to being direct compensation to patients for their tremendous losses, it pays for important quality-of-life improvements like hiring a reader for a blind person or acquiring a wheelchair-accessible van—things that can make all the difference in the daily lives of catastrophically injured people.
If a jury decides that non-economic compensation exceeds a "cap" amount, it is because the injury is extremely catastrophic. Thus, caps by definition most severely harm the most seriously injured. Caps also discriminate against groups like stay-at-home moms, the elderly, and children, whose "economic" compensation like "lost income" due to the injury might be lower. In essence, economic compensation alone puts a higher value on the lives of people with larger incomes.
Finally, it is true that some doctors have suffered exorbitant and unfair insurance rates. But caps, contrary to their stated purpose, do not and will not lower doctors' insurance premiums. Study after study has shown that insurers set their rates based on regular economic investment cycles, not lawsuits. That is why we’ve seen premiums go up during times when malpractice payouts went down. It is a shame that many physicians have become advocates for caps, despite evidence that they are being overcharged for insurance and that caps won’t help, and that caps harm the patients they work so hard to care for. Malpractice problems will only be solved by reducing medical errors, increasing openness and discipline when they occur, and regulating an out-of-control insurance industry.

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