Lawsuits are a very small part of a very big problem

We need a plan for reforming health care that treats medical malpractice like what it is.

Medical malpractice is not wrecking U.S. health care. The physicians of Minnesota Doctors for Kerry-Edwards are very concerned that Americans are being misled by the Bush-Cheney campaign’s claim. They assert that their plan to have the government place caps on court awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice trials will cure the ills of the United States’ ailing health-care system.

President George W. Bush’s campaign has spent millions of dollars flooding our airways with misleading ads that portray physicians echoing their rhetoric. In reality, this is another administration attempt to exaggerate the importance of a tiny issue to distract voters from the big issues.

While medical malpractice reform is a challenge that needs to be addressed, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are blowing this issue out of proportion.

Contrary to what Bush and Cheney would have you believe, the total cost of medical malpractice is a tiny fraction of health-care spending. Bush’s policy of placing caps on malpractice awards has been tried in many states and has not been proven to lower costs.

Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have a more aggressive, comprehensive plan to address medical malpractice reform.

The rapidly increasing cost of insurance is a challenge that physicians in many states face, especially those practicing in high-risk specialties and rural areas – where we need physicians the most. But it’s not just U.S. doctors who are suffering from sky-rocketing insurance premiums. More than 45 million Americans cannot afford health insurance. In the past four years we have seen the largest rise in medical costs in the country’s least populated areas.

We wish the cure to our health-care ills were as simple as a malpractice award cap. But the truth is far more complicated. In fact, according to the 2003 Weiss Report, doctors in states with caps often suffer significantly larger premium increases than doctors in states without caps. Our own Congressional Budget Office found that, at best, Bush’s proposal would lower health-care costs by only 0.5 percent in an industry in which costs have increased more than 10 percent annually under Bush. This wouldn’t even make a dent in U.S. health-care costs.

While Bush and Cheney pitch malpractice award caps as a cure-all for our ailing health-care system, the reality is such a policy does not directly lower insurance premiums. It does not directly make patients safer. It does not directly reduce the number of frivolous law suits. It does not directly lower health-care costs or keep physicians practicing.

The only thing an award cap does is directly inhibit the ability of a person with a legitimate grievance to collect compensation. Any other outcome is a possible side effect. In a country where we value freedom so highly, the cost of such a restriction to our justice system is not worth the gamble. The side effects will never be worth the sacrifice.

The Kerry-Edwards plan does not limit the amount of compensation a family can seek if its child is wrongfully injured or killed, the way the Bush-Cheney caps do. Kerry and Edwards have a plan that targets the problem areas of our malpractice system specifically.

It is a comprehensive effort to reform our medical malpractice system, which directly addresses the problems using the kind of measures that states such as Minnesota have already implemented to good effect. The Kerry-Edwards plan requires that a qualified medical expert review each case to determine if it has any real merit before it can go to court, so that frivolous and meritless cases can be screened out. The plan also imposes sanctions – using a “three strikes and you’re out” strategy – against lawyers who repeatedly try to advance frivolous lawsuits, which will bar repeat offenders from the system. The plan eliminates the special privileges that allow insurance companies to fix prices and collude in ways that increase insurance premiums. We need a plan for reforming health care that treats medical malpractice as what it is – a very small part of a very big problem.

Kerry and Edwards recognize that all of us – not just physicians – suffer from sky-rocketing insurance costs. This is why they have a plan that – in addition to addressing the medical malpractice system – will guarantee health insurance for every U.S. child and make health insurance more affordable for all.

Will Nicholson is a University graduate student. Please send comments to [email protected]