California boy to be poster child for foes of Bush cap on malpractice suits

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The San Diego Union Tribune

WASHINGTON: He cannot see, he walks with leg braces, and his brain is infantile compared to that of your average seventh-grader.

This is life that belongs to Steven Olsen, the once-healthy Chula Vista, Calif., boy who is becoming a poster child for the battle against President Bush‘s plan to cap the amount that juries can give to victims of medical malpractice.

On Thursday, 12-year-old Olsen and his parents will speak out against the Republican president’s plan by telling their story: How doctors in 1992 refused a test that could have diagnosed then-2-year-old Steven’s brain abscess; how Steven became blind and brain-damaged; how a jury awarded the boy $7 million; and how a California law forced the judge to lower that to $250,000.

Bush last week announced that he wants to pass legislation that would mirror the 1975 California law that capped the Olsen’s pain-and-suffering judgment at $250,000.

When Steven was 2, he fell on a twig that penetrated his sinus area. Doctors at Children’s Hospital rejected his parents’ plea for an $800 CAT brain scan and an abscess developed, leading to Steven’s permanent disabilities and cerebral palsy.

“It’s easy for them to say (the Bush plan) is fair and balanced, because they’re not hurt by malpractice,” said Steven’s father, Scott Olsen, who is in Washington D.C. Thursday to kick off a nationwide bus tour by consumer advocates opposing the Bush plan. “We challenge them to find any person injured by malpractice in California who will agree that this is fair and balanced.”

Medical groups blame escalating jury awards for the high cost of malpractice insurance – which they say is forcing some doctors to leave certain medical specialties.

Groups such as the American Medical Association are behind Bush’s plan. The California Medical Association notes that before the 1975 law, California physicians were paying 20 percent of the country’s malpractice insurance premiums. Today, it says, state doctors pay only 11 percent. A Los Angeles ob-gyn pays about $60,588 a year for malpractice insurance, compared to $201,376 a year for a doctor in Miami and $106,766 for one in Detroit, said association spokesman Peter Warren.

“There are always going to be horror cases,” Warren said. “But it’s very hard to produce the horror case that happens if operating rooms are closed, or if neurosurgeons can’t operate” because the cost of malpractice insurance forces them out of practice.

Among those fighting Bush’s plan are the lawyers who represent malpractice victims and the California Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. The latter claims that malpractice rates have stayed low in the state because of Proposition 103, the insurance reform measure that voters passed in 1988.

“The Olsen’s story … exemplifies the new pressures on medicine to put money ahead of high-quality care, and why it’s the most dangerous time to limit liability for medical providers,” said foundation spokesman Jamie Court.

California’s law, known as the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, still allows punitive damage awards when there is malice or fraud, but that is often difficult to prove. Bush’s plan would limit punitive damages; a comparable bill by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, would not.

The California law also has no limit on how much juries can award patients for economic damages, such as medical expenses and loss of earnings.

The Olsens won economic damages in their case, and all told, they took home about $2.9 million. But that is still not enough, Scott Olsen said, to pay the estimated $4.5 million that it will cost to care for Steven the rest of his life.

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