Critical Condition

Tort Reform Lite

President Obama has thrown a bone to his opposition by finally addressing medical-malpractice reform. As a doctor, I am close to this issue, which must be an essential ingredient of any honest health-care reform proposal. Frivolous lawsuits and jackpot justice have resulted in skyrocketing medical-malpractice premiums, forcing many doctors — especially those in high risk fields like OB-GYN and neurosurgery — to either retire or relocate. For the patients who can still find a doctor, the health care they need is delivered at inflated prices. Defensive medicine drives up costs further still: To fend off nuisance suits, doctors order tests, procedures, and specialty consults that patients often don’t need, with each unnecessary intervention carrying a hefty price tag, in addition to the risk of side effects.

To tackle this problem, Obama has proposed “demonstration projects in individual states.” The maneuver seems to indicate a belated effort at compromise. A more accurate diagnosis would be that it is  a political ploy designed to allow his Congressional colleagues and surrogates in the media to laud his bipartisanship. It gives the aura of coming to the table, but essentially takes the issue off the table, quelling debate until the administration can sweep the med-mal issue under the rug.

The president has handed the medical-malpractice initiative over to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, under whose dutiful care the proposal will no doubt die a quiet death. Remember, Secretary Sebelius spent nearly a decade as the director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. Trial lawyers continue to be staunch Democratic fundraisers, and if history is any guide, they will get what they pay for in this instance. I suppose we should be grateful, at least, that Mr. Obama didn’t turn the initiative directly over to a tort kingpin like Peter Angelos, Fred Baron, or (convicted felon) Dickie Scruggs.

Thanks to Mr. Obama’s “initiative,” when conservatives push for tort reform, liberals can claim that the administration is already working on it. Case closed! Does he really think Americans are this gullible?

We are well beyond the need for “demonstration projects” or “tests” in this country. We need comprehensive tort reform. Medical malpractice has run amok. Mr. Obama begrudgingly acknowledges that conversations with physicians have prompted him to believe defensive medicine “may” lead to waste and excessive costs. One must wonder who he talked to — because any doctor, other than those under contract with the trial bar, would describe the malpractice mess far more definitively.

I must admit that I agree with one part of Mr. Obama’s terse remarks on the subject of med-mal: When the president said that he doesn’t “believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet,” he was dead on, metaphorically speaking. Trial lawyers are not werewolves. They more closely resemble vampires — parasites who have been sucking the life blood out of this country’s health-care system for far too long. Any serious proposal to reform health care — to improve patient care and to lower costs — will need medical-malpractice reform to keep the bloodsuckers at bay.

– Jason D. Fodeman, MD, is a former health-policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation.