Republicans in Congress have offered up little in the way of new health care proposals. After retaking control of the House this year, they revived an old failed measure that would severely limit lawsuits against negligent doctors, drug companies that kill people, and companies that make defective pacemakers and other medical devices. The Republicans claim that curbing such suits would significantly reduce health care spending, a claim that’s been disproven many times over. What the bill would do is protect doctors and other health care providers who harm people through bad medicine.
Case in point is one of the very congressmen sponsoring the bill, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). In 2007, the New York Times reports, Gingrey, who is a doctor, settled a lawsuit for $500,000 in a case involving a pregnant woman whose appendicitis Gingrey and others failed to diagnose. Her appendix burst, causing a massive infection that left her unborn child dead and the woman partially disabled after she suffered a stroke as a result.
That wasn’t the only time Gingrey has been sued. The Times writes:
In a pretrial deposition, Dr. Gingrey testified that he had been sued at least three other times over malpractice during his long career. In one case, a jury found against him; in another case, there was a settlement; and in another case, the patient dropped the action, he testified.
It’s no suprise that the doctors who get sued a lot are the ones who complain the loudest about “frivolous” lawsuits. But the case against Gingrey seems anything but frivolous. But it’s just those sorts of serious cases that Gingrey’s bill would restrict. And far from saving money, the bill would simply shift the cost of negligent medicine from the doctors and their insurance companies to the taxpayers through Medicaid and other disability programs. Private health insurers also can often recoup their costs for covering malpractice injuries through those lawsuits. Catastrophic injuries like the one suffered by Gingrey’s patient profiled in the Times tend to bankrupt people, leaving them reliant on government health care, and the costs can be significant.
In 2004, the state of Nevada was considering a measure similar to Gingrey’s bill that would have capped pain and suffering awards at $350,000 and made it harder for plaintiffs to collect on court judgments against doctors. Evidence provided to the state supreme court showed that malpractice lawsuits had returned more than $6 million to the state Medicaid program in the previous five years, and that the state program for indigent health care would have been entitled to more than $4 million in a single case that was pending at the time. None of that money would have returned to the taxpayers if the lawsuit restrictions had been in place at the time. Despite what Republicans want to believe, making malpractice lawsuits disappear doesn’t make the health care costs of medical errors go away. It simply means that it’s just not the wrongdoers who pay for them.
Oh, and as a side note: Gingrey doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the affairs in his home state. In 2005, Georgia passed a cap on malpractice damages much like the one Gingrey would like to impose on the whole country. Last year, in a 7-0 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the law, calling it a huge violation to the constitutional right to a jury trial, and one that infringed on the separation of powers. Not only is Gingrey’s bill bad health care policy, it’s likely to be bad law, too.