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Congress Should Find ‘Third Way’ on Legal Reform

There’s an important task that Congressional moderates can perform on health care reform besides fighting the public insurance option and containing costs: find a middle ground on medical malpractice.

Even President Barack Obama ought to join the cause and go beyond the tepid studies that he’s instituted and push for real centrist legal reforms.

And “third way” legislation is available — developed by legal reformer James Wootton and backed by several provider, physician and advocacy groups — that would make it possible to prevent and resolve medical mistakes with less resort to costly litigation.

The effort, backed by Xerox Corp., the pharmacy benefit manager Medco Health Solutions and the American College of Cardiology, is also designed to advance use of health information technology by limiting the ability of trial lawyers to raid information systems for lawsuit fodder.

A model bill, the Patient Safety and Compensation Act, promotes physician apologies, early settlement offers, mistake-prevention discussions, use of independent experts and comparability standards for damage awards.

The bill has been promoted with several Members of Congress but has yet to find a sponsor. It’s getting late in the reform debate — but not too late to be picked up and pushed.

It’s an alternative to the endless battle between doctors and trial lawyers, Republicans and Democrats, over “junk lawsuits” and the right to recourse for victims of medical negligence.

For years, Republicans and the American Medical Association have been pushing a national $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages (“pain and suffering”) in malpractice cases.

When Republicans ran Congress, caps passed the House but got blocked in the Senate by Democrats and a handful of Republicans allied with the American Trial Lawyers Association.

In the meantime, about half the states have followed California’s example in enacting caps, but nationally the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors keeps soaring — along with the expensive practice of “defensive medicine,” the ordering of unneeded tests and procedures strictly to avoid lawsuits.

There’s merit on both sides of the argument: Medical malpractice happens, people suffer and die — perhaps 100,000 people a year from avoidable medical errors — and they deserve recompense.

But it usually takes three to five years to win a court case. Many victims are discouraged by the ordeal from ever filing suit. And when they win an award, more than half of it customarily goes to pay legal and administrative costs.

On the other side, doctors — especially neurosurgeons and obstetricians — may pay up to $200,000 a year for malpractice insurance. AMA surveys show that the fear of getting sued leads 80 percent to 90 percent of physicians to practice defensive medicine — the cost of which is variously estimated at $20 billion to $200 billion a year.

If it’s somewhere in between, that’s $100 billion a year or $1 trillion over 10 years — more than the $900 billion ceiling that Obama has decreed for health care reform.

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