Solving Malpractice Costs

This article is on display in my office. It appeared in Newsday on July 24, 2007. It is entitled “Don’t Blame the Victims: Other ways to solve malpractice costs.”

Costly medical malpractice insurance is a real problem, particularly on Long Island. Unfortunately the solution most often touted – limits on jury awards – is bogus. The debate over the rise in the cost of premiums has to get beyond demonizing trial lawyers if solutions are to be found.

Nobody likes being sued. And trial lawyers are a tantalizing target for retribution. But its the people they represent – those injured due to medical negligence painstakingly proved in a court of law – who would be the victims of dollar limits on damages for pain and suffering.

There’s no magic bullet to miraculously control the cost of malpractice insurance. So debilitated patients shouldn’t be singled out to bear the brunt of reform, when there are so many other players in this drama with deeper pockets.

The problem was laid out last week by Newsday reporter Ridgely Ochs. The cost of medical malpractice insurance is on the rise in New York after years of relative stability, and the highest rates in the state are here on Long Island .

With HMOs and insurers playing hardball to keep a lid on costs, doctors are getting squeezed. Some are altering their practices: ob/gyns, for instance, opting to stop delivering babies. That’s worrisome and, if unaddressed, could become a problem for patients. But the assertion that all this is being driven by rapacious lawyers is unconvincing.

The size of jury awards has gone up in recent years. But according to the Center for Justice and Democracy, a consumer group that tracks such things, payouts from verdicts and settlements have risen no faster than the rate of inflation in medical costs. And while some doctors have left or altered their practices, many have set up shop on Long Island , driving an overall increase in the number of obstetricians and surgeons, including neurosurgeons, in the area.

Still the cost of insurance is a problem, and there are approaches to slowing the increases that merit consideration. A specialized medical court without juries, for instance, or a no-fault system for claims involving neurologically impaired infants. A crack down targeting the licenses of incompetent or chronically negligent doctors would help. So would still penalties for lawyers who filed frivolous suits.

There are bound to be other, more creative ideas. Unfortunately, they may never be explored if the debate remains fixated on attacking damages awarded to patients for their pain and suffering as the root of all evil.

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