Malpractice caps overdue in Washington

Will your doctor be there when you need him? How long will you have to wait for someone to see you in the emergency room? Will the obstetrician of your choice be available when you have your baby? Will you be able to find a neurosurgeon at all?

Dramatic increases in awards for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages have led to enormous increases in the rates for medical malpractice insurance that doctors are forced to obtain — ironically because the promise of lottery-like payouts has encouraged a flood of malpractice claims.

Since bona fide examples of medical malpractice are extremely rare, the majority of these claims are dimissed in court. But that doesn’t mean doctors don’t have to defend themselves from them. In many cases, in fact, it’s cheaper to simply reach a settlement with the claimant than spend the time and money disputing the charge in court.

All of which is good news for trial lawyers and handful of victims but bad news for doctors, whose insurance rates go through the roof, and for the rest of us when the doctors are forced to pass those costs on to us. Or go out of business.

The solution isn’t easy, but it is obvious. Passing medical liability reform legislation that includes a limit on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits would reverse this dangerous trend. Patients could still sue to recover all their medical costs and lost wages in any malpractice award, but their non-economic damages would be limited.

Our own 26th District Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, who chairs the state’s House Judiciary Committee, disagrees. She argues that caps, “do not address the real problems of behind medical malpractice. They only punish patients for being the victim of malpractice.”

Nonsense. No malpractice cap bill would ever be considered, let alone passed, that limited awards for real damages. No one, not even the physicians themselves, would support such a measure, nor is there any incentive for doctors or their insurers to protect or cover up genuine incompetence.

Insurance companies, like all businesses, seek to maximize their profits. But they also understand there is a limit to how much they can squeeze physicians without driving them out of practice or to another state. And we’re rapidly approaching that point in Washington.

So if physicians, insurance companies and the overwhelming majority of patients who depend on their doctor for excellent health care — and get it — are hurt by skyrocketing insurance rates and the outrageous damage awards that cause them, exactly who’s helped?

Mostly the lawyers who argue the cases, for which they take a healthy cut of any award. Small wonder the trial lawyer lobby contributes so generously to sympathetic legislators — many of whom, like Lantz herself, just happen to be lawyers.

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