Sensible "Point" Reform
In the latest “Point,” Mark Hyman goes after John Edwards for being (gasp!) a trial lawyer. Specifically, he warns ominously that trial lawyer contributions to the Kerry-Edwards ticket suggest that frivolous lawsuits will go through the roof, as will result in doctors and businesses going out of business, and individuals having a hard time getting affordable health care (a subject that The Counterpoint is sure is near and dear to the heart of both Hyman and George W. Bush).
This reasoning (such as it is) is both completely contrary to the facts and utterly hypocritical.
First, on Edwards’ financing: actually, according to Opensecrets.org, an organization that keeps track of campaign financing, Edwards financed more than half of his 1998 Senate run himself, not through donations from anyone (in fact, he took no donations at all from PACs). Yet Hyman suggests he’s “owned” by trial lawyers. On the contrary, Edwards’ campaign financing suggests that unlike nearly any other member of Congress, he’s his own man.
Second, malpractice insurance costs neither drive up medical costs nor take huge chunks of money from individual doctors. In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office found that "malpractice costs account for a very small fraction of total health care spending" and that even radical reform "would have a relatively small effect on total health plan premiums."
In 2004, a CBO report said, “Even a reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent in malpractice costs would lower health care costs by only about 0.4 percent to 0.5 percent, and the likely effect on health insurance premiums would be comparably small...the evidence available to date does not make a strong case that restricting malpractice liability would have a significant effect, either positive or negative, on economic efficiency.”
And according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, as of 2002, “Malpractice insurance costs amount to only 3.2 percent of the average physician's revenues.”
Moreover, the biggest abusers of the court system aren’t “greedy trial lawyers” filing frivolous lawsuits, but companies. According to the American Bar Association, while product liability lawsuits have actually declined in recent years, contract lawsuits initiated by corporations have increased markedly.
The larger issue here is the oddness of attacking trial lawyers as a group. Of course, going after lawyers is an easy pastime, but whom do they represent? Individuals--individuals who have been injured on the job, while undergoing medical treatment, or at home because of faulty products. Lawsuits have led to safer products (e.g., children’s pajamas that don’t burst into flames), a cleaner environment (e.g., penalties for companies that poison residential areas with carcinogens), and employee-friendly work environments (e.g., standards that protect workers from on-the-job accidents and other health concerns such as repetitive stress injury that diminish productivity and increase health costs).
As Erin Brockovich (the real one, not Julia Roberts) says in the forward to the book “Fighting for Public Justice” by Wesley J. Smith:
I used to hate lawyers.
I thought all they cared about was power and
I thought they didn't give a damn about ordinary people.
Now I know better. Now I know that there are lawyers throughout America
— trial lawyers throughout America — who spend their whole lives fighting for
ordinary people. Trial lawyers who spend their time, their energy, and their
money working to hold huge corporations, oppressive governments, and other
wrongdoers accountable. Trial lawyers committed to ensuring that justice
Most people don't understand that — and neither did I. That's
why this book is so important.
Are there occasional frivolous lawsuits? Certainly, but there are probably many more legitimate lawsuits that are never filed. For example, recent studies have shown that there are far more documented cases of medical malpractice than malpractice suits filed.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration sings the praises of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, himself a former trial lawyer, who said when asked about the attacks on John Edwards’ former career, “I used to represent people in courts in the south. So I wish we’d get off that.”
And speaking of hypocrisy, how about this: in 1999, “multimillionaire” George W. Bush filed a lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-a-car when one of his daughters was in a fender-bender with driver who had been rented a car even though she had a suspended license. No one was hurt, and Enterprise’s insurance was going to pay for the minimal damages to Bush’s car anyway. That didn't’ stop the man who now touts “sensible lawsuit reform” from filing suit against Enterprise. Eventually, the case was settled. The amount in question? Less than $2500.
Hypocritical frivolity, anyone?
And that’s The Counterpoint.
For a clearly-written essay by a legal expert on the GOP charges against John Edwards and the assertion that malpractice suits hurt doctors, see this piece from CNN.
A more detailed analysis of Republican distortions of the medical malpractice issue is available in this article from “Washington Monthly.”
And here’s and editorial from The Des Moines Register that briefly but clearly addresses the topic.