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Originally published Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Democrats shouldn't throw doctors to the legal wolves

You sometimes wonder whether Democrats have the smarts to stay in business. They should own the health-care issue. Year after year, the Republicans sit passively as medical costs...

You sometimes wonder whether Democrats have the smarts to stay in business. They should own the health-care issue. Year after year, the Republicans sit passively as medical costs zoom skyward and more Americans go without health coverage. But then, the Democrats blow it by defending a system that lets lawyers hunt down doctors in hope of winning jackpot awards.

All President Bush has to do is go to southern Illinois, where a medical-malpractice crisis has caused more than 160 doctors to flee a two-county area. He stands in front of a big sign reading "Affordable Healthcare" and demands reform of the medical-liability laws. Presto, he has a health-care issue with which to whip the Democrats. And it's popular, too: Only 16 percent of adults polled think the laws don't need changing.

True, medical malpractice is not the biggest health-care cost. But it does drain billions out of our health-care system. Lawyers extract their millions, of course. The doctors get hit with enormous malpractice premiums, then try to protect themselves from flying lawsuits by ordering unnecessary tests. The ultimate bill, of course, ends up in the public's lap.

The people aren't dumb about this. They know that there are bad doctors who must be punished. But they also understand that good doctors sometimes have bad medical outcomes. They're aware that simple-minded juries make mega-lottery awards out of sympathy for the injured. They also recognize that the money to pay for all this doesn't come from heaven and that lawyers grab at least 30 percent of the take.

How strange that enriching trial lawyers has become a liberal cause. Sure, liberal organizations and Democratic politicians like the lawyers' money. But if Democrats let trial lawyers buy them off, how can they get on their high horse about Republicans' living it up courtesy of the drug industry?

Democrats are not great at seeing the cultural implications. The medical-malpractice crisis takes a toll beyond economics. It is socially corrosive. There's something morally wrong with making doctors the fall guys for medical tragedies they have no control over.

Doctors in my community — some the most progressive people I know — are tearing their hair out over exploding medical-malpractice premiums. They see the Democratic Party throwing them to the wolves.

I recently had dinner with a Belgian doctor who went purple over the issue. She was a staunch defender of government-run health care, but the thing that made her most angry about the American system was the legal pursuit of doctors whenever anything went wrong.

Contrary to the lawyers' claims, suing doctors does not necessarily weed out the bad apples. The big-gun suits are directed mostly at neurosurgeons, obstetricians and other physicians engaged in a few high-risk specialties. Are we to believe that our most highly trained specialists are the most incompetent?

The president is running circles around the Democrats. Showing his perfect sense of timing, Bush has just released a study he commissioned on ways to discipline incompetent doctors. It was done by the University of Iowa and the liberal Urban Institute. Their recommendations centered on strengthening state medical boards.

What are public-spirited Democrats to do about Republican-sponsored medical-malpractice reforms? They should go along, after making some changes.

The legislation lets victims of medical malpractice collect unlimited economic damages. That's the cost of medical care and lost wages. No problem there.

But it would cap non-economic damages at only $250,000. A non-economic damage is money for "pain and suffering." Because "pain and suffering" can't be easily pinned down, this is where the wild jury awards come from.

Democrats should try to raise the limit on non-economic damages to $500,000. Two thinking Democrats, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said they might vote for the bill with a higher cap.

And that should make sense to Republicans, also. They've based the cap on California's 1975 reform of its medical-malpractice laws. Because of inflation, $250,000 in 1975 is worth $882,000 today. So a $500,000 cap would hardly be out of line.

Democrats should put on their glasses. This game of suing doctors is real ugly. And defending it deprives them of the moral high ground on health care. Democrats ought to let medical-malpractice reform pass and get on with their lives.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

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