Even as the nation teetered on the precipice of war with Iraq, President Bush saw it necessary in his State of the Union address to condemn overzealous personal injury attorneys who are undermining our nation's health care system. The issue of frivolous lawsuits threatens the freedom of Americans in a different way than does a terrorist menace, but lawsuit abuse is clearly worthy of its place on the national agenda. Frivolous lawsuits have coerced increasing numbers of doctors to abandon their practices and have left patients in many of our communities without access to quality health care. If we do not act soon as a nation to implement medical liability reform, this litigation trend will destroy the health care system as we know it.
Because of out-of-control litigation and sky-is-the-limit jury awards, many of our best physicians are closing their doors or reducing their services. As you read this, many of Oregon's ob/gyns have already scaled back their practice to only gynecology, refusing to perform vital services for fear of litigation, and many more are forced to refuse high-risk cases for fear of frivolous lawsuits and strangling insurance premiums
The health care crisis that we find ourselves in is very grave, but it is reversible. Federal legislation modeled on California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA) would reverse this catastrophic trend in health care by capping jury awards and limiting attorney's fees. Federal legislation would have the added bonus of reducing health care costs, allowing more Americans to obtain health care coverage. Medicare savings would be substantial, as would the savings for employers or other health care purchasers.
The recent proposal forwarded by Governor Kulongoski to help rural doctors disproportionately affected by malpractice insurance costs is simply a band-aid on a growing cancer. The Governor's plan is so narrow that it will benefit a mere handful of Oregon doctors.
In order to be effective, legislation capping non-economic damage awards must be passed at the federal level. Oregon is not in a position to correct this situation, and even if modest reform did pass here, that would not keep doctors from fleeing to states like California with greater protection against frivolous lawsuits.
As Oregonians, we need to urge Senators Smith and Wyden to support Senate passage of meaningful medical liability abuse reform legislation this year. Ensuring access to needed health care services for all Oregonians must become a top priority.
Parrish Van Wert