Op/Ed: Legislative Malpractice

Monday, May 8, 2006

By Joanne Doroshow
The headlines may have shifted to gas prices, immigration, Iraq, Iran, corruption and a host of other important concerns, but health care remains the most pressing problems for most Americans today. Forty one percent of Americans are now without health insurance, the Commonwealth Fund announced last week.
With health care in such crisis, the U.S. Senate might be commended for declaring this week as “Health Week.” In fact, one might hope such a declaration would lead to serious consideration of legislation to actually address the public health emergency in which we find ourselves. But then again.
Senate leadership has announced that a key element of “Health Week” will be scheduling votes on two bills that would take away the legal rights of patients injured or killed by medical malpractices. One bill is so broad it would even cover seniors abused and neglected in nursing homes. The other bill would cruelly limit the rights only of pregnant women and babies. Both contain severe “caps,” or limits on the ability of patients injured by gross negligence to be compensated.
Since 2003, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has forced votes on similar bills three times, each time resulting in stunning defeat. In no case has there been a single hearing, mark up, committee debate or anything close to careful consideration. In fact, Sen. Frist has bypassed the committee process entirely every time, introducing the bills with little notice before senators were asked to vote. The same is true this year.
Ironically, this effort comes at a time when medical malpractice claims are down and insurance premiums for doctors have leveled off. Claims and premiums amount to only about 1 percent of total health care costs. Meanwhile, up to 98,000 people are dying each year due to malpractice in hospitals. About 5 percent of doctors are causing most of this harm, but little is done to sanction them. What’s more, repeated research shows that such bills will do nothing to help doctors with their insurance problems—let alone patients with theirs. Only directly addressing the economic practices of the insurance industry will do that.
These bills are DOA and one can only speculate about Frist’s political motives for continuing to resuscitate them. Clearly, the insurance and healthcare industries are pushing hard—and they are major political contributors, with elections are just around the corner. Not to be forgotten is Senator Frist’s personal connection to this story. His family’s fortunes are closely tied to the largest for-profit hospital chain in America, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), and the insurance company it owns, HCI. Both would benefit tremendously from these bills.
Whatever the political reason behind this effort, one thing is sure. They will be defeated because Americans reject the notion of a “one size fits all” cap on compensation for those who have been hurt. The public does not believe that a child who suffers brain injury should be treated like a senior citizen abused in a nursing home, or as a dad who is blinded or as a mother who loses a child. Where there is gross negligence, the public believes juries can decide compensation in such cases better than a politician in Washington, DC.
Fixing our healthcare system is no easy job. But trying to address this critical problem with legislation that does little more than take dollars away from injured patients—and puts them into the pockets of insurance companies—is legislative malpractice.
Joanne Doroshow is the executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy.

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