A real cure for the crisis in health care

By Sharon Smith | March 7, 2003 | Page 7

DOCTORS HAVE been walking picket lines from New Jersey to Illinois in
recent months, striking against soaring medical malpractice costs.
They have good reason to be angry at malpractice insurance rates that
have doubled or tripled in as many years.

But they are shaking their fists in the wrong direction--heaping
scorn on patients who are victims of the health care crisis. "When
your water breaks, call your lawyer," one New Jersey doctor's picket
sign sneered to his pregnant patients.

The American Medical Association is vigorously supporting the Bush
administration's proposal to cap "pain-and-suffering" settlements at
$250,000 in malpractice lawsuits, arguing that "frivolous" claims are
the cause of skyrocketing medical costs.

But some 80 percent of malpractice victims never even file a lawsuit.
And the vast majority of malpractice lawsuits are far from frivolous.
Medical malpractice is a senseless human tragedy, as in the botched
surgery of 17-year-old Jésica Santillán--who died last month after
surgeons mistakenly transplanted a heart and lungs of the wrong blood

The National Academy of Sciences has reported that up to 98,000
deaths in the U.S. each year are due to medical malpractice. Surgeons
have operated on the wrong arm, leg, eye or other body part at least
150 times since 1996.

George W. Bush's spin doctors have touted the fact that the new
Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, is a doctor, implying that
Congress will put patients' needs first under his leadership. But
Frist's loyalties favor the free market and the Republican Party over
the Hippocratic oath.

Frist's family fortune came from the largest for-profit hospital
chain in the U.S., the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)--modeled
on the Holiday Inn franchise. HCA has provided Frist with his largest
campaign contributions, followed closely by health insurers and drug

One in seven Americans has no health coverage, and at least 65
million have no coverage for prescription drugs, but the new Senate
leader's stated priority is a congressional ban on human embryo cell
research--a favor Bush owes to his backers in the Christian Right.

Frist opposes passing the Patients' Bill of Rights--a toothless piece
of legislation that would barely dent the health care crisis, now
languishing in Congress for the sixth straight year. Nevertheless,
Frist has blasted the Patients' Bill of Rights as "socialized

Frist is also spearheading Bush's plan to push retirees out of the
non-profit Medicare system and into for-profit HMOs, by dangling a
vague promise for a prescription benefit. But HMOs have dumped more
than 2 million elderly patients in the last four years. In the
topsy-turvy logic of the medical industrial complex, elderly and
other chronically ill patients are not desirable "markets" for
corporations supposedly providing health care.

The Bush administration's obsession with capping medical malpractice
lawsuits shifts blame away from enormously profitable health care
corporations. In fact, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress
have proposed "capping" the inflated prices charged by drug
companies, or monthly insurance premiums that reach $1,000 or more
for a family of four.

Medical malpractice is a byproduct of the profit system--a spiral of
endless cost-cutting by providers in search of higher revenues,
leading to staffing cuts that endanger patients. A recent study by
the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that, for every patient
over four in a nurse's workload, the risk of death following surgery
rises by 7 percent. "I estimate that hundreds, or perhaps thousands,
of deaths each year are due to low staffing," said Dr. Jack
Needleman, an author of the study.

Doctors should be walking picket lines--but alongside nurses and
other health care workers, to fight for better staffing and working
conditions. And they should put pressure on Congress--not to pass
caps on malpractice claims, but for a health care system that
provides decent health care for the majority of the population.

That means opposing the health insurance and pharmaceutical
companies, and fighting for a single-payer system. That, Dr. Frist,
is socialized medicine.