Doctors’ Orders: Dump Murray

Posted March 22, 2004 at 5:14pm

Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) vote last month against a bill to cap financial awards in medical malpractice lawsuits seems to be costing her the support of Washington state doctors.

Rep. George Nethercutt (R), her likely challenger in November, wasted no time highlighting her opposition to the bill, which would have capped financial damages in malpractice lawsuits against obstetricians and gynecologists, and he is using it to drum up support among physicians.

Echoing a theme sounded by the GOP and supported by the American Medical Association, Nethercutt told a group of reporters recently that doctors are being driven out of business by the high cost of medical malpractice insurance and that Congress needs to intervene.

Murray said the Republican-sponsored bill was politically motivated and would do nothing to bring down skyrocketing insurance premiums.

Republicans are sure to use the issue against Democrats nationally — saying they are beholden to trial attorneys and unwilling to solve the crisis. But they seem to be zeroing in on Murray with special ferocity.

While the candidates and their surrogates went back and forth over the merits of the legislation, Nethercutt’s camp contends that doctors will turn out in droves to help defeat Murray because of her opposition to the bill, which ultimately failed to pass the Senate last month.

“Physicians in this state have made tort reform the litmus test for [political action committee] purposes,” said Tom Curry, president of the Washington State Medical Association.

There is “abject frustration” among doctors with the state Legislature and the U.S. Senate’s inability to bring balance to the lawsuit problem, he said, and that has prompted doctors to become more politically involved.

“I have seen a broader and deeper willingness on a personal basis [from doctors] to get involved than I have seen in my 22 years [of experience],” Curry said.

Though no data bears this out, Curry said anecdotally he’s talked to many doctors, some of whom are Democrats, who are willing to knock on doors on behalf of Nethercutt, attend fundraisers for him and ultimately pull the lever for him in November — based solely on this issue.

The group even hosted a fundraiser for Nethercutt during its annual convention last year, he said.

Carol Albert, Murray’s campaign manager, said that while the state medical association will do whatever it will do, many doctors will support Murray because she has stood up for issues they care about for 12 years.

“If they want to have a debate on health care, we welcome that debate,” because Murray has an outstanding record on health care issues and Nethercutt does not, Albert said.

“He’s absolutely trying to politicize this issue,” she added.

Murray did not support the latest bill because it would have denied women redress for doctor’s malfeasance and did nothing to solve the problem of medical malpractice costs, Albert said.

Additionally, Murray is “an original co-sponsor” of the Better Health Act of 2003 introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would comprehensively address the gamut of problems — including frivolous lawsuits facing doctors and hospitals, Murray Senate spokeswoman Alex Glass said.

Nethercutt spokesman Alex Conant says that bill would not discourage such suits.

“The plan would put a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage,” he said.

Regardless of who is right, Nethercutt is winning the financial war on this front.

“Health professionals” comprise the third largest group of contributors to Nethercutt’s campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

So far this cycle they have given the Eastern Washington Congressman $43,700.

That category does not crack Murray’s top 20 list of donors.

Murray has lost ground with this group, as it ranked No. 8 on her list of top contributors the last time she ran for re-election, in 1998. That year, they put $73,220 into her kitty.

At the PAC level, Washington doctors will contribute money to their state PAC, which in turn will fork the money for federal campaigns over to the AMA’s PAC, which ultimately will disperse it to candidates, Curry explained.

Curry’s group wants some of that money to go to Nethercutt, he said.

Officials at AMPAC (the AMA’s political arm) would not discuss their plans for the Washington Senate race, but AMA President Donald Palmisano said the national PAC works closely with its state affiliates.

AMPAC has not donated to Murray in the past, the group’s spokeswoman said.

So far this cycle it has given Nethercutt $5,000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.

Washington is one of 19 states the AMA says is in a medical malpractice crisis.

A recent Congressional Budget Office report bolsters the AMA’s assertion that malpractice premiums are rising at an alarming rate. It also reveals that capping financial awards for damages such as “pain and suffering” has done little to bring premiums back to earth.

Malpractice caps “isn’t an issue doctors are going to leave Patty Murray on when they know she’s been fighting for their issues all along,” said Cara Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.