Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Obama Promotes Malpractice Myth

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 8:41 AM EDT

The New York Times reports this morning that President Obama is considering burning his trial lawyer allies to get health care reform passed. That is, he said he would support restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits because he believes it would help reduce health care costs. If Obama really believes cutting lawsuits would save money, he's not as smart as I thought. Doctors have been making this argument for years, as did President George W. Bush, whose administration claimed restricting lawsuits would cut health care costs by $108 billion a year. But there isn't a lick of data to support these claims. The Congressional Budget Office took a look at Bush's assertions and found in 2004 that reducing lawsuit-related costs by 25 or 30 percent would result in only a tiny .4 percent reduction in health care costs. The CBO concluded that the benefits of reducing lawsuits were vastly overblown.

Lawsuits are a natural biproduct of incompetent doctors, who are the source of an inordinate amount of expensive medicine. I've written about this extensively here and here, but just to recap: Preventable medical errors cost the country about $20 billion a year. A tiny number of bad doctors account for the vast majority of malpractice suits. If Obama wants to contain lawsuits and save money, he should propose putting those guys out to pasture. Of course, Obama's lawsuit proposal is designed to court the American Medical Association, which has never seen a bad doctor it couldn't love. Any proposal to weed the incompetents out of the medical profession would probably be a deal breaker.

UPDATE: During his speech on Monday before the AMA convention, Obama talked about cutting back on medical malpractice lawsuits without placing caps on malpractice awards--drawing boos from the crowd. From his prepared speech:

Now, I recognize that it will be hard to make some of these changes [in the health care system] if doctors feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of lawsuits. Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable. That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine, and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines. That’s how we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine reinforcing our current system of more treatment rather than better care.

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Why Would Anyone Buy A Volt?

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 11:21 AM EDT

Perhaps it really is time to just let GM die. Today's Washington Post story on the next generation Toyota Prius explains how Japanese automakers are putting their money into better hybrids, giving the Prius a bigger trunk, more power and even better mileage at 50 mpg. By contrast, GM is banking its future--and billions of taxpayer dollars--on the Chevy Volt. If the Volt is GM's future, we're in big trouble.

The new electric car, due out next year, will only be able to go 40 miles--40 miles!--without recharging, meaning a Volt wouldn't get me from my house to Bagel City and back on a Saturday morning. To get around this problem, the Volt has a back-up gas tank that will stretch the car's usefulness another 400 miles at 50 mpg. In an age of 100-plus mile commutes, lots of people would presumably drive primarily on the gas tank (after all, the only charging station they're likely to find is one in their own garage). Meanwhile, the savings achieved are relatively small. The Volt needs 80 cents worth of electricity to go the same distance as a Prius with $1.50 worth of gas in the tank. But here's the rub: At $40,000, the Volt costs almost twice as much as a Prius, a difference that all but obliterates any savings at the pump. Does the Obama administration really, truly believe that GM can transform itself with this car?

Oh Please Let Haley Barbour Run For President

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

The Washington Post this morning ranked the most influential voices in the GOP right now. Of course, Dick Cheney is way up there. But buried in the rankings is more chatter about the influence of Mississippi governor and former tobacco lobbyist Haley Barbour, who may be mulling a presidential run in 2012. Barbour has been making all the right trips around the country; on June 24, he'll pop in for his second recent visit to New Hampshire. And, he's term-limited so Barbour will be in the job market come 2011.

The Post posits that Barbour will ultimately decide that trying to run against a reformer as a former uber-lobbyist probably is a lost cause, but I'm still rooting for him to run. What could be more fun that a bubba like Barbour facing off with Obama on the stump, where he could brag about his record of say, dumping thousands of poor pregnant women off Medicaid and other such feats? As campaign fodder goes, Barbour has at least as much color to offer as Mitt Romney, one of the presumed front-runners, though he might be hard pressed to compete with the dog-on-top-of-the-car vacation stories and all that Mormon stuff. Still, Barbour's entry into the race would liven things up in the press pool considerably.

Does Sotomayor Oppose The Death Penalty?

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:10 AM EDT

Republicans in Congress have all but given up trying to derail the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor for a Supreme Court seat. Even Manny Miranda, the controversial conservative leading the attacks on Sotomayor, has admitted he has no hope of winning a filibuster because the GOP just doesn't have the numbers. That stark fact apparently won't stop serious right-wingers from attempting to bloody Sotomayor anyway, this time over her stance on the death penalty.

Today, Wendy Long, counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee complaining that Sotomayor has failed to make public controversial materials from her 12-year membership in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she was once a board member. The documents purportedly show her opposing reinstatement of New York's death penalty back in 1981.  Long is shocked--shocked!--that Sotomayor signed on to a memo suggesting that "Capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society.”

Sonia Sotomayor's Addiction Problem

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

Not that this is relevant to her ability to serve on the Supreme Court, but Sonia Sotomayor clearly has an addictive personality. A profile of the judge in Thursday's Washington Post reveals that during her heady days as a prosecutor in New York, Sotomayor smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. When President Obama was narrowing down his choices to fill the soon to be vacant slot on the U.S. Supreme Court, was he trying to find someone to sneak cigarettes with?

But that's not all:

The prosecutors were expected to juggle 80 to 100 cases at a time, and in her years there Sotomayor tried perhaps 20 cases before juries. She survived by becoming, in the words of her friend Dawn Cardi, a "caffeine addict" who started her day with a Tab, one of maybe 20 she threw back on an average day...

It's great to see that Sotomayor has vices like the rest of us. But 20 a day? I (Nick) like my diet soda, but I've never had more than two 2-liter bottles, and that's on a really bad day. Sotomayor's habit was the equivalent of over three and a half 2-liter bottles a day. That's a lot of cola. And the 936 mg of caffeine in 20 Tabs is the equivalent of around nine brewed coffees. Add in 30 cigarettes, and you've got one wired prosecutor.

Whether she still smokes (or drinks Tab) seems to be a mystery, though Sotomayor reportedly now works out at the gym three days a week or so, suggesting that she may have kicked the habit. Of course, Obama works out a lot too, and he still gets caught puffing once in a while. Perhaps the Judiciary Committee will ask her about this. After all, smoking is probably a lot more relevant to her longevity on the bench than the fact that she has diabetes, which has also come up during the debate.

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT