Malpractice caps need to retain flexibility

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The Nashville City Paper

Doctors who face mountainous malpractice insurance premiums because of over-the-top “pain and suffering” lawsuit awards should get relief. But we don’t think a blanket cap of $250,000 is the answer. Instead, we believe there should be some formula that takes into account the circumstances of the case.

The issue of skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates has led doctors nationwide to protest publicly. Monday, physicians in New Jersey walked off the job in all but emergency cases. Earlier this year, two dozen surgeons in West Virginia refused to operate. Last year, 50 doctors closed the only trauma center in Las Vegas for 10 days.

For these professionals who take an oath to ease pain and suffering, those actions were certainly painful and underscore the seriousness of the problem.

President Bush has thrown his support behind a bill in Congress that would cap those pain and suffering awards at $250,000.

But we wonder if a better approach would be first to go after bad doctors who do inflict needless harm on their patients. We don’t hear much about that in the debate.

And second, let’s consider the circumstances of each case. Just one example: In California, which has had a malpractice cap of $250,000 since the 1970s, a 2-year-old boy was severely brain damaged and left blind because of a series of medical mistakes made after a simple camping accident. Jury members said after the trial they wanted to award the child $7 million, a not unreasonable sum considering he faces a lifetime of profound limitations. But he got $250,000. And California’s cap doesn’t change due to inflation.

Florida is also considering a cap, although an arbitrary amount hasn’t been set. But University of Central Florida President John Hitt cautioned that $250,000 is too low and instead suggested an array of caps reflecting the severity of the malpractice.

That’s what we need nationwide. A “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work in the world of malpractice, where physicians — just as attorneys — are held to a higher standard.

Consumer Watchdog
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