By Michael Huston
Illustration by Taejun Lim
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
There is a health care crisis in America today. All over this country, good doctors are being driven out of business by exorbitant medical liability insurance costs.
This issue affects all Americans because everyone needs and deserves access to quality health care and comprehensive tort reform is the only way to ensure that care will be available when patients need it.
Ridiculous liability insurance premiums are making health care unavailable to more patients as doctors are forced to retire from medicine, leave the state or simply refuse to accept patients who require high-risk procedures.
This means that some of our most brilliant, talented physicians, especially those in neurosurgery and thoracic surgery, are unable to provide the delicate care their patients need.
The problem is also arguably most severe for obstetricians, who in this state pay an average of $7,100 per month in liability premiums, according to the Arizona Physician Workforce Study. As a result, the number of wonderful doctors who bring our children into the world is rapidly declining in Arizona, and birth centers all over the state are being shut down.
Dr. Richard Langert, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices in Tucson and is a graduate of the College of Medicine, said, "The ever-increasing liability forces us to simply hope for the best, and retire as soon as we can."
He said the continually increasing liability premiums "force us to spend less and less time with each individual patient, and require that we take on many more patients than we would like just to break even."
There are many myths when it comes to the public's understanding of this crisis, one being that the only doctors being sued are the "bad" doctors who actually do commit malpractice.
This, however, is far from the truth. Trial lawyers will happily take a case against a doctor no matter how sterling his or her reputation and credentials might be, provided that the attorney has at least a meager chance of winning the case and especially if it has the potential for a large jury award.
Unlike other professions, physicians are unable to set the price of the services they provide to raise and lower prices as their costs of doing business fluctuate. Instead, the amount of money a physician receives for his work is pre-set by private insurance companies or by the federal government through Medicare.
This means that while the costs of practicing medicine continue to increase, the amount of revenue a physician receives from her practice does not. As a result, doctors and their families are forced to simply absorb the costs of liability insurance themselves.
Here in Arizona the problem is rapidly getting out of control. The number of doctors is declining, costs of health care are rising and fewer patients are able to get the care they need on time.
To begin to solve the problem we need comprehensive tort reform in Arizona, and the law mandates that it must come in the form of an amendment to our state constitution.
First, this amendment should include provisions that force trial lawyers to absorb the legal costs of physicians who are sued in frivolous cases that get thrown out of court, as well as fining them for greedily abusing our judicial and medical systems.
Second, a cap must be established on the amount of money that juries are allowed to award to patients as noneconomic or "punitive" damages.
This means that patients will always recover their medical costs and lost wages in a malpractice award, but juries will be unable to award the exorbitant amount of punitive damages that perpetually drive premiums up.
Several states have already established such caps, and these states have seen liability premiums decrease by as much as 20 percent as quickly as one year after the passage of the legislation.
These are also the states that experience the highest quality, most available health care, leaving little doubt about the direct relationship between the costs of liability insurance and access to care.
Enacting such an amendment would have the immediate effect of lowering practicing costs for doctors and the longer-term effect of ensuring better access to care, at a lower cost, for future Arizona patients.
In order to ensure permanent access to quality health care for all patients, Arizonans must unite in support of comprehensive medical liability reform. Our doctors and our patients deserve it.
Michael Huston is a political science sophomore who admires the men and women who practice medicine in America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.