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Malpractice reform efforts could hurt patients

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Suppose that the next time you go to a grocery store or restaurant, you're asked to sign a form guaranteeing that you won't sue if you contract a food-borne illness from their products. Would you sign it or be so offended you'd walk out the door?

What if the management explained that according to the Centers for Disease Control, 9,000 Americans die each year from food-borne illnesses, and the payouts from all the associated lawsuits raise the cost of eating for everyone? You could do your part to lower rising food costs by signing the form. Would you?

Would you sign a form agreeing to collect no more than $250,000 for your pain and suffering if the food-borne illness you contract left you severely handicapped? If everyone else signed such a form, would you begin to worry that those who prepare and sell food might get sloppy, knowing that there were no serious financial consequences if the food made people sick?

How about at your doctor's office? Would you sign a contract denying you the right to sue your doctor if he makes a careless mistake that permanently disables you while providing emergency care? Would you agree beforehand that if a medical malpractice condemns you to life as an invalid, you won't collect more than $250,000 for your pain and suffering? Signing that contract would give most people pause.

Unless they are stopped, state legislators will soon sign it for you.

Somewhere along the line, doctors got the idea that unlike other business owners, they should get special immunity from the costs of maintaining liability insurance. Insurance companies decided it would be great if they could pay out less to those killed or maimed for life by careless doctors.

Most doctors do a great job. Unfortunately, a small number of doctors are sued again and again for deadly and life-altering errors, yet are often allowed to keep their licenses by the North Carolina Medical Board. These doctors are the ones patients need protection from. Instead, this bill protects them from unknowing patients.

Malpractice reform supporters claim that junk lawsuits with huge payouts are driving up health care costs, but junk lawsuits are extremely rare. The median payout in a medical lawsuit in this state is $320,000. Large payouts do happen occasionally, but they are usually in cases where a patient was severely disabled or killed due to medical negligence.

According to a Charlotte Observer editorial, the average number of malpractice lawsuits filed annually in North Carolina, which has a population of 9 million, is 470. The number has declined by 25 percent in the last six years. That's remarkable considering that 4,000 patients die and 5,700 are permanently injured annually in the state's hospitals because of preventable medical errors according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The new law allows the kind of damages that pay for future medical treatment and reimburse lost wages, but caps damages for pain and suffering at $250,000. Are you prepared to tell a little girl who will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life due to preventable medical error that her suffering is worth only $250,000? That's about $3,000 a year.

Suppose that when you take your daughter to the emergency room, you emphasize repeatedly to the doctor in charge that she is deathly allergic to penicillin. He gives her penicillin shot anyway, which she didn't even need for her broken toe. She dies.

Under current law you can sue. If this legislation passes, you can't, because medical personnel will now be given immunity from "mistakes." Emergency room personnel could only be sued if they deliberately hurt someone, or intentionally put them at risk — like by showing up to work drunk or high on drugs. That's an almost impossible standard to meet. Exactly what legislators are trying to fix with this bill is unclear. The Winston-Salem Journal reported last week that medical malpractice insurance rates in the state have stayed the same or declined in recent years. Even the bill's supporters acknowledge that it won't lower medical costs. And the number of doctors in the state per capita is increasing, not declining.

So remind me again, why do this to patients?

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