The Senate Finance Committee resumes work today on markups for its $900 million healthcare bill. Here’s one way the committee won’t be cutting health costs: medical malpractice reform. Reining in the tort industry, which makes thousands of lawyers and a few patients rich, could save $200 billion annually. But that’s not gonna happen, thanks to trial lawyers, who are major bankrollers of the Democratic Party.
Lawyer and Common Good chairman Philip K. Howard, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, lists the rebuffs to tort reform that the President Obama and congressional Democrats have accumululated over the past two months:
• On July 31, Rep. Bart Gordon (D., Tenn.), a Blue Dog Democrat, introduced an amendment to the House health-care reform bill (H.R. 3200) to fund pilot projects for liability reform, including pilots for “voluntary alternative dispute resolution.”
What happened? According to the online newsletter Inside Health Policy, “While Gordon’s amendment originally had seven policies that states could implement in order to receive federal funding, the other five suggestions were crossed out . . . due to the agreement with the trial lawyers.”
• On Aug. 25, at a town-hall meeting in Reston, Va., Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, was asked why there is nothing in the health-care proposals about liability reform. Mr. Dean replied: “The reason that tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers. . . . And that is the plain and simple truth.”
• On Sept. 9, President Obama made a commitment in a speech before Congress to fix the problem of defensive medicine. On Sept. 17, his secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, announced an initiative that will allow states to test a variety of programs to “put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine.” But in the initiative’s statement of goals made no mention of defensive medicine, or of pilot projects such as special health courts. The funding for the initiative is a tiny $25 million. According to Katharine Seelye on the New York Times’s Prescriptions blog, “the comparatively small budget seems commensurate with the administration’s level of interest in the subject.”
Obama is on record as opposing limits to malpractice liability and its giant jury verdicts–even though 54 percent of all malpractice expenditures go to lawyers and administrators, not patients, according to a 2006 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. As John Edwards’s famous victories in cases involving babies born with cerebral palsy (about which prenatal and delivery care can’t do much about) indicate, medical malpractice is essentially a courtroom lottery in which most patients recover little or nothing but those who do win win big.
The effects on the practice of medicine are poisonous, however, as Howard writes:
One in 10 obstetricians have stopped delivering babies, unable to pay malpractice premiums on the order of $1,000 per baby, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Some hospitals, including Methodist Hospital and Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia, have stopped delivering babies altogether; and the number of unnecessary caesarian sections have increased to the detriment of the health of mothers, according to the ACOG.
But don’t look for reform from Democrats, who need those trial-lawyer dollars.