February 06, 2005

An Eye On Malpractice Reform

Here's a timely blast from the past: Go read Stephanie Mencimer's October, 2003, article on how doctors, along with the GOP, have fomented an insurgency campaign against trial lawyers in recent years. Alas, while everyone's been focused squarely on Social Security—and rightly so—malpractice "reform" has been quietly snuck up on legislatures across the country. The Georgia State House has just approved caps on malpractice awards. Illinois and Washington are also looking into the matter. And of course, President Bush.

The crux here is that many—not all, but many—of the doctors speaking out against malpractice awards are either wholly incompetent or dangerously reckless practitioners who mostly deserved to get sued. So always do a quick background check on those doctors leading the charge. Ideally, of course, insurance agencies would just target those 5 percent of doctors responsible for over half of all malpractice payouts. But insurance companies—and this I didn't know—actually make most of their money on stock investments, and not managing claims, so they tend to hike premiums across the board. Few insurers plan to lower malpractice premiums if these tort bills pass; the premium rates are dictated almost wholly by how well insurance companies are doing in the stock market.

So a better solution, as Mencimer suggests all-too briefly, would be to "reduce the number of malpractice lawsuits simply by reducing the number of medical injuries." Various ideas include a mandatory public error-reporting system, stricter licensing requirements, and better specialization among doctors. I'd add that state medical boards could stand to act more aggressively against wrongdoers, but that would require making the boards independent in some way. Doctors, of course, have no incentive to do this. And Republicans have no incentive to stop helping them. The way they figure, caps on awards will happily cripple the Democrat's large trial-lawyer fundraising base. Bully for them. Even more importantly, once malpractice reform is on the table, you can start fiddling with larger protections for businesses against lawsuits. In an age where we can no longer confiscate tobacco money gained through illegal activities, that seems to suit the GOP just fine.
-- Brad Plumer 9:57 PM || ||