U.S. Faces Malpractice Crisis

Published April 1, 2002

Today, American medicine is at the point of no return in its relationship with the predatory medical malpractice lawsuit industry, and with the dangerously high insurance premiums it spawns. Unless something changes—and soon—the burden will destroy vital parts of American medicine. All of us, except the trial lawyers, will be the losers.

One headline, from the December 4, 2001 issue of USA Today, says it all: “Soaring Malpractice Premiums Stun Many Doctors.”

Writes reporter Rita Rubin: “Some physicians are seeing their malpractice insurance premiums increasing anywhere from 8 percent to 100 percent. As a result, some are dropping procedures that put them at risk of malpractice suits, moving to areas with lower rates, or even retiring early.”

Nightmare Ahead

The scenario Rubin describes has been decades in the making. None of it has, or will, help the patient. Of course some medical procedures are risky—but they just might save your life.

Imagine that you and your coronary (or your nine-months’-pregnant wife) are en route to a hospital that stopped doing heart surgery or delivering babies because it could no longer afford the insurance coverage. Not to worry . . . a state or two over, where the insurance premiums are a bit less, you might still find somebody willing.

What do you tell the driver of your ambulance? “Yes, I know we’re in Philadelphia. Now let’s head for Cleveland.”

Notes Rubin: “Executives at the St. Paul Companies, the country’s second largest underwriter of medical malpractice insurance, have notified virtually all customers who are obstetricians, general surgeons, or emergency medicine doctors—the three specialties most likely to be sued—that their policies will not be renewed.”

Giving one cause to wonder whether you will even have the option of heading for Cleveland for your emergency, Rubin also notes:

  • “Rates for physicians insured by the company in 27 states have increased an average of 24 percent this year.”
  • “Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, whose clients include malpractice insurers, says doctors can expect rate hikes of 8 percent to 18 percent this year and next—and well above 18 percent in some jurisdictions.”
  • “One six-member OB-GYN practice in North Carolina, whose insurance had been canceled, found itself paying $277,000 a year for new coverage—more than double what it had been paying.”

In “Costs Lead Rural Doctors to Drop Obstetrics” (Washington Post, November 23, 2001), John Porretto of the Associated Press notes: “Physicians who specialize in family medicine and obstetrics/gynecology in Indianola and other rural areas of Mississippi are increasingly dropping obstetrics because of skyrocketing costs for malpractice insurance.

“Medical liability insurance rates for doctors who deliver babies have risen from 20 percent to 400 percent this year depending on the carrier, according to the Mississippi State Medical Association. Annual premiums range from $40,000 to $110,000.”

In parts of Florida, some doctors paid nearly $160,000 last year for professional liability insurance.

More Trouble On the Horizon

And then there’s the mercifully not-yet-enacted “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” which only expands the lawsuit lottery. In our June 29, 2001 column for WorldNetDaily, “Lawyers Bill of Fights,” we warned, “The real outcome of the PBOR (Patient’s Bill of Rights) would likely be twice as many suits against twice as many physicians and HMO defendants.”

A month later, in our July 27 WorldNetDaily column, “Patient’s Bill of Goods,” we reported, “The Employment Policy Foundation recently released a study that suggests this kind of legislation could lead to 56,000 new lawsuits per year, $16 billion in higher health care costs, and 9 million more Americans without health coverage.”

For years, the diamond-dripping trial lawyers have brazenly proclaimed their only goal was to eliminate medical malpractice. The hundreds of billions of dollars a year headed for their crocodile wallets had nothing to do with it! And we have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you . . . cheap.

Studies indicate that many patients allegedly harmed by medical malpractice, and many winners in the malpractice lottery, weren’t in fact injured by malpractice—but were awarded damages because of jury sympathy or other reasons extraneous to fact and justice.

What’s the Alternative?

So what to do? Some states, such as West Virginia, are considering special insurance options to keep doctors open for business. And many experts advocate comprehensive tort reform, destroying the web of greed by limiting punitive damages, contingent fees, class-action lawsuits, and overall settlements. But medicine can’t wait for that particular miracle.

One alternative may be to require patients, as a condition of treatment, to submit malpractice claims to arbitration. This is common practice in the commercial banking industry. Plaintiffs tend to win more often in arbitration than in court, but the settlement amounts are generally lower, reflecting proper compensation and neither punitive damages nor the antics of “runaway juries.”

Another possible alternative comes from the general aviation industry. Over several decades, predatory lawsuits effectively bankrupted the producers of single-engine piston planes. It took years, but a coalition of manufacturers, unions, pilots, and others persuaded Congress to pass the General Aviation Revitalization Act on August 17, 1994—perhaps the first time in history people had organized to demand limitations on their right to sue. It worked, and general aviation has experienced several years of unprecedented growth.

Maybe what’s needed is a “General Medicine Revitalization Act.” Ask your doctor about it soon . . . while you still have one.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D. writes on health care issues and Robert J. Cihak, M.D. is the immediate past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Together they write a weekly column for WorldNetDaily.