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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

Fort Collins Coloradoan
Mar 29, 2003

by Sabrina Karim

No need to cap medical malpractice awards

On Feb. 22, Jessica Sentillan, a 17-year-old girl from Guadalajara, Mexico, who had awaited three years for a heart and lung transplant, died because doctors at Duke University Medical Center made the fatal error of implanting organs in her that were the wrong blood type.

Jessica's death is only one of the 98,000 deaths a year due to medical malpractice. Despite these staggering numbers, the House of Representatives passed a bill to cap medical malpractice lawsuits for pain and suffering at $250,000. This means that families who lose a loved one in a medical malpractice case can only receive $250,000 as compensation.

The medical community argues that petty lawsuits and high awards in cases are the cause for higher insurance premiums, which in turn drive doctors into early retirement, or force them to move to a different state.

The medical community, however, provides little to no evidence that correlates the rising awards to rising insurance premiums. Even more important, according to the American Medical Association, there are 4.4 percent more physicians in states without caps.

Implementing caps does little for rising insurance rates. The model for the Bush-backed bill is based on the California Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act passed in 1976. Instead of lowering insurance premiums, doctor's insurance rates increased 190 percent over the next 12 years.

Since 1998, according to the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights, premiums in California rose 37 percent while premiums across the country grew only 5.7 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office even states that large reductions in malpractice costs would have a relatively small effect on total health plan premiums.

With medical insurance costs amounting to only 3.2 percent of the average physicians expenses and with only 2 percent of people injured by physician's negligence, caps on medical malpractice suits would only inflate the checkbooks of insurance agencies and doctors while restraining the victims from the rewards they deserve.

Not only do caps not reduce premiums, they also have remained constant throughout the 1990s, while medical inflation has skyrocketed.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, between 1995 and 1999, medical malpractice insurance premiums rose just 1.2 percent, in contrast to medical inflation rising 13.6 percent and constitute just one half of 1 percent of all medical costs.

Placing caps also discriminates against the poor. Caps not only limit the amount of an award someone can receive, but also the paycheck of the lawyer. A medical malpractice case takes two to three years of the lawyer's time and costs can be very expensive.

Thus, the lawyer will only take cases in which the plaintiff can pay the lawyer, resulting in thousands of people not being compensated for their pain and suffering.

At a first glance, caps on medical malpractice seem to be a pragmatic first step towards tort reform and limiting petty lawsuits. But these reforms violate a person's value. Placing caps on damages allows the government to place a price on a life.

According to those who voted for this bill, a person's life and the pain and suffering of family members is worth only $250,000, which is further reduced after paying lawyer fees and other expenses. Thus, not only do these caps place a price on life, but they also don't serve their purpose when it comes to lowering insurance premiums.

Instead of infringing upon the rights of victims, we should let our justice system handle lawsuits without interfering by implementing caps and focus on lowering premiums by reforming the health insurance system.
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Sabrina Karim is the Coloradoan Youth Views columnist. She is a Fort Collins
High School student. She can be contacted c/o the Coloradoan, P.O. Box 1577,
Fort Collins, CO 80524 or by e-mail at opinion@coloradoan.com



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