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Suit Yourself 

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Last legislative session, when state lawmakers were contemplating an adjustment in state law to allow for more arbitration in medical-malpractice cases, one scrubs-clad doctor held up this sign: “It’s the Lawsuits, Stupid.”


Late last month Intermountain Health Care, Utah’s tax-exempt health-care monolith sent out 170,000 notices echoing that same message. If you want medical attention from one of its 3,300 physicians, you’d best be ready to bargain instead of file suit.


Once again, it’s time for the public to decide what’s more important. Do we want access to more affordable health care, or prohibitively expensive health care made evermore error free because doctors fear the wrath of the legal system every time they perform a task? We want it both ways, of course.


Trial lawyers argue that a legal system of oversight helps ensure a high standard of care, especially against 60 Minutes episodes of physicians who like carving their initials into patients following an appendectomy, or who remove the wrong lung from a coal miner. Local trial attorney James W. McConkie lambasted arbitration as the worst news since Noah’s flood. But as one of the state’s foremost medical-malpractice attorneys, it’d come as a shock if he said otherwise.


It should no longer be news that physicians have had enough. If Utahns were shocked at IHC’s bold move, consider what it’s like for a doctor in Florida’s Dade and Broward counties when they open malpractice insurance premium notices. In 2001—and you can bet rates have gone up since—general surgeons pay up to $159,166 annually, while obstetricians pay upwards of $203,000 and even internists must fork out up to $50,000—all in case of a lawsuit, the possibility of which gets more and more likely. In July, the Christian Science Monitor reported that even pet owners are starting to sue their veterinarians for procedures gone wrong. If the public insists on phoning attorneys at every turn, don’t be surprised if physicians drop risky procedures, or walk out of the hospital altogether. In some states, they’ve already done just that. In Pennsylvania this year, the governor talked about putting $220 million into a state malpractice insurance fund just to help doctors out.


Caps on malpractice collections aren’t a panacea, either. The American Medical Association’s malpractice reform bill, which set the limit at $250,000, went nowhere, and for good reason. What we need are courts specifically designed for medical malpractice suits. The current system gives plaintiffs awards based solely on the quality of their attorneys, and forces doctors to calculate just how many years they can afford to remain in practice.


Perhaps IHC doesn’t deserve any sympathy. If anything, we might ask lawmakers why they let this tax-free behemoth garner so much power over the years. Who’s going to say no to IHC now? Get ready to swallow your pride, and sign that arbitration agreement.

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