Get out the tourniquet because the shark bites have America bleeding again. From Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas, and most states in between, victims of the shark (AKA trial lawyer) attacks are drowning in the Litigation Sea. National headlines make it increasingly apparent that a rise in malpractice lawsuits has caused a swell in professional liability insurance premiums, with the current medical liability crisis driving up health care costs and resulting in less access to care.
In at least one state, West Virginia, the victims are fleeing the water. Striking against a plethora of lawyers, pro-claimant juries and the lack of tort reform, surgeons in West Virginia have walked off the job to protest rising malpractice insurance premiums.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, some malpractice insurance costs have soared by as much as 80%. Worse yet, in some states, such as Pennsylvania, carriers have stopped writing liability policies. Physicians are forced to make difficult decisions, with some choosing to go "bare", with no insurance, and others choosing to shut their doors, leaving patients scrambling to find care.
Some blame the current medical malpractice crisis on the tragic events of 9/11 and the fact that many carriers experienced a $20 billion net reduction in money available to fund insurance losses. But that statistic is just a throwback compared to the bigger fish on the hook for the current crisis.
The popular contingency fee arrangement offered by many trial lawyers encourages people to sue. Even patients with the most frivolous claims will undertake a fishing expedition in hopes that they can bait insurance carriers to pay out a settlement rather than risk costly litigation.This, coupled with punitive damage awards that have spiraled out of control, is the overwhelming reason for increasing premium rates. When insurance companies cannot make predictions about risk, they must assume that verdicts will continue to rise. With today's jackpot lottery mentality resulting in skyrocketing verdicts, insurers must continue to raise premiums.
The American Association of Health Plans estimates that medical malpractice lawsuits cost about $5 billion nationwide (about 7 percent of total healthcare costs). Add to that the estimated figures of $27 to $50 billion to cover the cost of practicing defensive medicine and you can begin to understand why medical costs are escalating.
For doctors, it is not just about money. Lawsuit abuse also costs them their reputation, time, anguish and emotion. Thousands of physicians, unable to pay their rising malpractice premiums, are reconsidering how, where, and if, they will continue to practice medicine.
As Congress starts its 108th term, the new Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist is perfectly suited to spearhead a campaign for tort reform. Dr. Frist can stabilize our hemorrhaging health care system by removing from his black bag medical liability reform legislation that includes capping noneconomic damages, requiring periodic payment of future damages, supporting joint and several liability and alternative dispute resolution and limiting attorneys' contingency fees. It is time for Congress to throw a lifeline and save us from the circling lawyers feeding on our health care system.January 9, 2003
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