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Contorting the judicial process
By Brad Jewitt
Women's health care has taken a hit recently in Maryland. The culprit: high medical malpractice insurance premiums. The result: a group of women -- some of them pregnant -- with no doctor.
Put simply, the doctor couldn't afford to practice anymore because of rising malpractice insurance premiums. One of the women was forced to plead with her doctor to keep practicing another seven days -- simply so this doctor could deliver her baby. The doctor, his insurance provider, and the patients were all victims of an ever-growing medical liability crisis in which the threat of excessive, unpredictable, and costly lawsuits has driven up the cost and availability of health care.
What makes this story all the more heartbreaking is that these women aren't alone in their plight. Just two years ago, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about 188 pregnant women who were forced to find a new ob/gyn in the middle of their pregnancies after their doctor couldn't afford to deliver babies anymore because his insurance premiums had tripled.
According to a recent survey, nearly one-third of Maryland's ob-gyns will cease to deliver babies because doing so would reduce malpractice insurance premiums. Yes, you read that correctly: One-third!
All over the country ob-gyns are quitting the practice, no longer delivering babies, reducing the number they do deliver, and further cutting back care for high-risk patients, the uninsured, and the underinsured. Lawsuit after lawsuit -- with huge settlement awards in tow -- has forced many devoted and talented caregivers out of business.
CBSNews.com has reported that some doctors who have never even been sued are facing insurance premiums that have doubled every year since 2002. According to insurance industry representative P.J. Crowley, "Medical malpractice costs are all about lawsuits, settlements and jury awards." Indeed, the cost of malpractice insurance in the nation's capital can be as high as $300,000 per year.
Given this information, it is interesting that John Kerry has chosen John Edwards as his vice-presidential running mate. John Edwards is a pro-litigation and anti-liability reform candidate, who will certainly not support the changes necessary in this vital area. In fact, when the Senate voted recently to consider a reform bill designed to improve women's access to vital care, Sen. Edwards voted against even considering the bill. On a similar vote earlier in the year, he didn't even show up. This is not leadership.
This is especially telling since Edwards, who constantly reminds voters of his modest upbringing, became a multi-millionaire by winning gargantuan settlements in tort cases. Edwards specialized in suing obstetricians on behalf of babies born with cerebral palsy, convincing juries that these babies would have been spared their disability if only the doctors had performed Cesarean sections during delivery.
It apparently does not matter that experts in neurology have refuted Edwards' claims, stating that doctors can do nothing about babies born with this neurological disorder. Nor does it seemingly matter that those who ultimately pay the price for these malpractice suits are normal people like you and me, who will see our medical costs rise and the quality of our medical care decrease as more and more doctors find they are unable to compete with malpractice attorneys.
Now consider the audacity of John Edwards, who complained during the Democratic primaries that medical insurance costs in this country are too high! Will we be surprised when a man who has directly contributed to unaffordable insurance premiums calls for the government to step in and "fix" this problem?
My opponent in this year's congressional race, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a trial lawyer himself, has consistently acted as an obstacle to reforming tort law. In 2003 alone, Steny Hoyer voted against HR 5, the Medical Liability Act, and against HR 1115, the Class Action Reform Bill.
We do not need "leaders" at the executive and legislative levels who are content to exploit the aggrieved for economic gain. On the contrary, what we need in this country is tort reform. We must place checks and limits on a judicial system that has awarded trial lawyers for exploiting the hardships of their clients and the sympathies of juries, all to the detriment of everyday citizens who are beginning to realize the true costs of these antics.
Opponents to tort reform complain that legislation to limit medical malpractice awards restricts the rights of plaintiffs to gain compensation for deficient medical attention. But while legitimate malpractice claims likely outweigh unreasonable ones, we must nonetheless ensure that judges award damages in proportion to the injustices involved.
It is time for Congress to pass legislation that limits the judiciary's ability to award inflated settlements. More important, it's time for Americans to demand that their elected representatives act to curb this disease.
Mothers and their children deserve the medical care lost through excessive litigation and extravagant malpractice settlements. This certainly need not occur by increasing our tax burden even further to centralize our medical system, but rather by holding to account unreasonable trial lawyers and judges who are more content to exploit the caregivers we all depend on than to ensure fairness in the judicial process.
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