Hard-core consumer activists sometimes spot conspiracies in unlikely places, but one California advocate says he has solid proof that the so-called medical malpractice insurance crisis is just that-a cynical ploy by doctors to line their pockets with a little extra cash at the expense of their patients.
Jamie Court, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, recently released unauthorized copies of e-mails sent within the last month or so by Steven Shikiar, an Englewood, N.J., surgeon who helped orchestrate the highly publicized, weeklong doctors’ strike last month across the Garden State.
In one e-mail obtained by Court, Shikiar announces to his fellow physicians that the strike would only be effective if ”our (patients) TRULY EXPERIENCE significant delays, inconvenience and INABILITY TO CHOOSE a physician.”
Court, who vigorously opposes the American Medical Association‘s effort to enact new tort laws that would place limits on damages in malpractice cases, says Shikiar’s e-mails underscore the profession’s ”cynical attempt to take advantage of patients and manufacture a crisis.”
In another e-mail, Shikiar calls on his fellow strikers to put pressure on those colleagues who decided not to join the walkout. ”Any physician who doesn’t want to participate shows just how disrespectful he is of his colleagues and of his profession,” Shikiar writes. ”He should be ostracized by his colleagues … just as any other ‘scab.’ ”
Shikiar, who does not deny sending the e-mails, denounces Court’s tactics and suggests that the consumer advocate took words and phrases completely out of context, distorting the true meaning of the messages. ”They took the most inflammatory phrases they could find and twisted them to further their causes,” Shikiar complains.
Court’s mini-expose, which failed to stir up much attention in the media, did little to dampen support for the physicians among many New Jersey residents. Despite some editorials decrying the walkouts and the physicians’ tough tactics, patients ”were very understanding-a little miffed, but they understood where we were coming from. This is a true crisis, and the patients appreciate that.”
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Meanwhile, in Washington, things have been even dicier for proponents of tort reform.
Shortly after Jesica Santillan died Feb. 22 at Duke University Medical Center from a botched organ transplant, her attorney sought to have Congress allow the family to express its views on limits on noneconomic damages in medical liability cases.
Just five days later, the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee invited several guests to its hearing on medical liability reform, including a 17-year-old girl whose face was severely damaged as a result of medical malpractice. Although Jesica’s death already was hanging heavy over tort reform, the subcommittee did not hear from the Santillans or their lawyer.
”America deserves to understand how people like Jesica and her family would be affected by the legislation your committee is considering,” Kurt Dixon, the Greenville, N.C., lawyer who represents the Santillans, wrote in a letter to Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and health subcommittee Chairman Michael Bilarakis (R-Fla.) requesting a chance to comment on pending legislation that would cap noneconomic and punitive damages in malpractice cases at $250,000. When committee members rebuffed his request, Dixon made sure that media assembled for the hearing saw his letter.
Dixon’s name then appeared on a witness list for a Feb. 28 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee but was later removed. In his prepared testimony for that hearing, Dixon said the bill circulating through the House, sponsored by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) and supported by the AMA and several other groups, is a one-size-fits-all approach that ”ignores people like Jesica and her family-people who have suffered real injuries.”
Words such as those constitute pain and suffering for tort reform.