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Sept. 17, 2002

Sham Crisis (in Florida) is Ploy by Insurance, Medical Lobbies to Strip Medical Victims’ Rights

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

I am Joan Claybrook, president of the national consumer group Public Citizen. I am proud to note that Public Citizen has more than 7,300 members in Florida. Many have joined Public Citizen because of our long history of working to improve the delivery, cost and quality of medical care and to educate consumers about unsafe and ineffective prescription drugs. You might have heard recently about Questionable Doctors Online, our Web-based data bank that lists 1,555 Florida physicians who have been disciplined for negligence, incompetence and other offenses.

Tomorrow, the president of the American Medical Association comes to town. He is coming to wage war. He will directly attack the American legal system – our third branch of government that gives citizens the right to seek redress for injuries caused by others. He will particularly attack the lawyers who are a vital part of that system. But he also will be indirectly attacking the many patients who use the legal system to hold doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and others accountable for horrible and unnecessary injuries and deaths caused by negligent actions. Some of those patients are here with us today, and they will speak to you in a few minutes about how important access to the courtroom is for them.

Let me say one thing to the AMA and to its affiliate, the Florida Medical Association: Have you no shame? For years, taking away citizen rights has been the battle cry to rein in high liability insurance rates – yet no insurance company will promise lower rates if such consumer laws are changed, and states that cut out consumer remedies don’t have lower rates as a result. This is a cynical political ploy by the insurance and doctor lobbies, driven by greed, and it’s a sham. Citizens should not stand for it, because the courts are the only place where average people can stand up to the powerful and the wealthy.

Florida already has some of the most Draconian medical malpractice restrictions of any state in the nation. Because of these restrictions, injured parties often are denied compensation simply because the anticipated recovery is so limited and the expense and risk of bringing such a case is so great. So who pays? Their families, who become overburdened and overwhelmed. Taxpayers and social service agencies, who have to pick up the tab for errors and wrongdoing committed by medical providers.

Yet the AMA and FMA want to limit patients’ rights even further. Apparently, the doctor lobbies will stop at nothing to falsely blame the victim and pretend they are doing something to lower insurance rates.

They continue to engage in propaganda – deceiving the public by blaming rising malpractice rates on lawsuits and the legal system. They continue to spread false allegations and half-truths to divert the public’s attention from the real problems: too much poor quality medical care in America today, poor business and investment decisions by the insurance industry, and an insurance model in dire need of reform.

Public Citizen has prepared a report, which we are releasing today, to shed some light on the subject. Among the report’s findings:

  • The number of medical errors reported by Florida hospitals – where two-thirds of medical negligence occurs – exceeds the number of medical malpractice claims by 6-to-1! From 1996 through 1999, Florida hospitals reported 19,885 adverse incidents – but only 3,177 medical malpractice claims. Adverse incidents are defined by Florida statute as "events over which health care personnel could exercise control" that result in death or injury. This means that for every six adverse incidents in the hospital, only one malpractice claim is filed.
  • A small number of malpracticing doctors comprise the largest part of the problem. Only 6 percent of Florida doctors are responsible for more than 50 percent of the malpractice. According to information from the National Practitioner Data Bank, 2,674 of the state’s 44,747 physicians have paid two or more malpractice awards to patients, making them responsible for 51 percent of all payments.
  • The Florida Board of Medicine, which is supposed to police the profession, is dangerously lenient with doctors. There are 24 doctors who have paid 10 or more medical malpractice judgments. Of those, only 12 have ever been disciplined by the Florida medical board. In 2001, only 36 percent of the disciplinary actions taken by the Florida Board of Medicine involved license revocation, suspension, surrender or probation. Only two states had a worse record than that.
  • Rates for many other types of insurance have gone up in Florida. This is largely the result of insurance industry economics. Major stock market losses mean insurers cannot continue to offer artificially low rates in the hopes of attracting more customers. In Florida in 2002, health insurance products increased 20 to 28 percent while some homeowners’ insurance lines increased more than 15 percent. Malpractice insurance rates increased in Florida by an average of 26 percent – a hefty increase but one that’s comparable to other types of insurance.

Rather than stripping medical victims of their rights, the true causes of malpractice insurance rate increases should be addressed. First, consumers should have access to more information about medical providers. Congress should open up the National Practitioner Data Bank so that information about medical malpractice payouts, hospital disciplinary actions and federal disciplinary actions is made public. Medical professionals should provide full disclosure to patients and families about errors. And there should be no more secret settlements that sweep medical errors under the rug.

In addition, the insurance industry should make changes. Doctors, for example, should be rated on performance, just as insurers do for bad drivers. And the number of classifications of doctor specialties for insurance rating purposes should be reduced, because the risk pools for some are too small and thus overly influenced by a few losses.

The reality is, there is no "medical malpractice insurance crisis." Rather, there is too much medical malpractice. And while some doctors may be facing a temporary insurance "crisis" that causes their rates to spike, the public is facing a permanent quality-of-care crisis that jeopardizes our health. I can’t imagine that most doctors want to allow a small number of their profession to continue practicing negligently. We have three strikes and you’re out for criminals. Why are doctors who cut off the wrong limb, leave foreign objects inside people or commit medical negligence as many as three times allowed to continue practicing without some form of rehabilitation?

The state legislature should investigate the causes of medical malpractice and find out why the state medical board is failing in its role of policing doctors.

Ask the president of the AMA why he is misleading the public and blaming medical victims for the false medical malpractice insurance crisis.

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