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FRIDAY, JANUARY 28, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Limit substandard care, not lawsuit damages

In an attempt to control skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums, President Bush is pushing Congress to adopt caps on jury awards.

"The United States Congress needs to pass real medical liability reform this year," Mr. Bush said Jan. 5. "The system is out of control . . . (and) needs to be fixed. . . . No one is healed by a frivolous lawsuit. The cause of justice is not served by frivolous lawsuits."

Frivolous lawsuits are a disease. But the president's proposed cure is the wrong medicine, and ceilings on awards would merely shield doctors and others who provide poor health care.

Both good doctors and good lawyers want to prevent bad lawyers from making meritless claims. But how does a ceiling on damages prevent a bad attorney from filing a frivolous claim? Doesn't it make more sense to discipline bad doctors?

There is evidence that caps on medical liability do not control insurance costs. In California, 10 years after caps were adopted, medical malpractice insurance rates rose 400 percent. The Texas Legislature enacted a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in 2003. Six months after the reform took effect, the Texas Department of Insurance ordered The Medical Protective Co., the nation's largest medical malpractice insurer, to file new rates for 2004 that reflect assumed savings. Medical Protective responded with a proposed 19 percent increase.

When the largest malpractice insurer in the country tells regulators that caps on damages don't work, every legislator, regulator and voter in the nation should listen.

So how do we stop malpractice litigation and the resulting insurance costs?

By more effectively disciplining the bad doctors, a recent study commissioned by the Bush administration says.

In Massachusetts in the last 10 years, "one-fourth of 1 percent of all the doctors — 98 of the 37,369 doctors — accounted for more than 13 percent of all the malpractice payments, $134 million of the $1 billion in total payments," according to Nancy Achin Audesse, executive director of the board that oversees medical professionals there.

It makes sense that regulating doctors rather than lawyers is the remedy for the medical malpractice crisis. Limiting substandard medicine benefits everyone, while placing ceilings on lawsuit damages would potentially deny justice to the families of patients who have been permanently injured by negligent or incompetent medical professionals.

Is anyone really interested in supporting the idea that the life of a child, spouse or parent is worth no more than $250,000?

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