The doctor has admitted his error. Under regulations in this government program, the airman cannot sue for malpractice. The U.S. Air Force is now considering whether to discharge him on disability of $800 a month.
This is one of these really hard cases. On one hand, taxpayers are ultimately liable for this government doctor, and so loss of the right to sue has saved us all some much-needed cash. On the other hand, a young husband’s promising career in the military has been ruined, and his future with the Air Force is entirely up to the government.
As we debate health care reform on a national level, it is worth looking at medical malpractice issues.
On one hand, statistics show that only about 1 percent of patients suffer damages from medical malpractice, a quarter of them fatal. Only a few bad apples, just 5 percent of physicians, were responsible for 54 percent of the payouts.
According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, physicians in the U.S. paid a total of $6.4 billion in malpractice insurance premiums in 2000, and in 2001, some $4.5 billion was paid out to settle claims. Even in this era of trillions, that’s still a significant amount of change.
If you examine the major players of this drama about fault, you find a triangular firing squad. Insurance companies blame sloppy doctors and greedy attorneys. Doctors blame greedy attorneys and insurance companies, which, in their quest for investment cash, agree to insure incompetent doctors. Malpractice attorneys blame sloppy medical practitioners and greedy insurance companies.
In 1975, California acted to cap malpractice awards at $250,000 for non-economic loss, most often the amorphous “pain and suffering.”
Economic costs such as lost income, medical treatment and rehabilitation are not limited. This has provided some stability to California but has meant lower incentive for attorneys to take on medical malpractice cases.
In 2007, Kaiser Family Foundation reported 924 cases of malpractice payouts in this state, compared with New York’s 1,537 for the same period, even though New York state has only about half the population of our state.
Perhaps, we just have better doctors here.
Medical tort reform has been a hot issue for decades, pitting two powerful groups against each other — the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.
Politicians are caught in the middle and have struggled to avoid alienating either group. During the most recent presidential campaign, President Obama mainly blamed the insurance companies.
According to his Web site, “Barack Obama and Joe Biden will strengthen antitrust laws to prevent insurers from overcharging physicians for their malpractice insurance. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will also promote new models for addressing physician errors that improve patient safety, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship and reduce the need for malpractice suits.”
It is clear the proposed health care plans favored by the administration continue to put the blame mostly on private insurance companies.
No one knows what will come out of the various health care reform bills circulating in Washington, D.C. Backroom deals are often the coin of the realm when crafting controversial legislation, and there are rumors that the AMA may have received some of what it wants in return for its endorsement of Obama’s efforts.
One might expect the ABA is keeping a close eye on any dealings with the power to demand its own concessions.
Right now in our private medical care and insurance programs, the doctors, lawyers and insurance companies are pushing interests that balance one another’s hegemony.
If the government does manage to pass significant health care reform with a public insurance program to compete with the private insurance companies — to, as Obama has stated, “keep them honest” — we might see little change in the malpractice dynamics at first.
If, however, the Republicans are right that the proposed plan will compete unfairly with insurance companies and force many out of business, then we might be looking at government as the sole insurer, and all of us might face walking in the prosthetic shoes of Airman Read.
• Pamela Case, a local freelance paralegal, is among a select group of local residents with columns in the Tracy Press.