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Feb. 11, 2003

A Damage Cap Would Only Add to Malpractice Survivors’ Pain

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, at Medical Malpractice Survivors Lobby Day

Today, we have heard horrendous and heart-wrenching stories from people whose lives have been devastated because doctors made grievous errors. It’s important to hear their stories, because they are truly the heart and soul of this debate. We must remember that what lawmakers do will have an enormous impact on people who have been horribly injured, many of whom will suffer for a lifetime.

The Bush administration says that a cap of $250,000 is enough for all the pain, suffering and losses that these and other victims have incurred. That amount – $250,000 – may sound like a lot on its face, but look more carefully. Let’s compare it to the salary and compensation paid the executives of top malpractice insurance companies.

One of the most highly paid CEOs, Paul Fishman of St. Paul Companies – which recently has stopped writing medical malpractice insurance – received nearly $9.8 million in 2001. The administration’s cap amounts to less than 10 days of work by Fishman – less than 10 days. Look at it another way: Fishman, who had no pain and suffering, made more in one year than the total amount that 75 malpractice survivors could receive if pain and suffering were capped at $250,000. That’s downright unfair.

As we’ve heard today, pain and suffering are very real. If you are a 20-year-old survivor of medical malpractice with a normal life expectancy and confined to a wheelchair, $250,000 translates to $12 a day. That’s a pittance, and it illustrates how administration officials place the interests of corporate fat cats over the interests of consumers – in this case, injured patients.

Those hurt most from doctor errors are those who would be most harmed by this damage cap. That seems to be getting lost in the policy debate – in fact, the doctors are trying to make themselves out to be victims by walking off the job. It is true that doctors in some specialties have been forced by greedy insurance companies to pay higher insurance premiums. But insurance companies are raising rates because they have lost money in the economic cycle – not because of the number of claims against a doctor or the size of jury awards. In fact, the companies don’t set rates based on doctor performance as they do for car drivers. These premium spikes have occurred before and are temporary. But the people here today don’t have temporary injuries – their pain is permanent.

One of the best ways to address this problem nationally is prevention – to reduce the number of errors doctors make, and thereby curb the number of people killed and injured. In analyzing information from the National Practitioner Data Bank, we have determined that just 5 percent of doctors are responsible for 58 percent of malpractice payouts. Only one in six doctors who have made five or more malpractice payments have ever been disciplined. Medical boards must crack down on doctors who repeatedly err, and the data bank records should be made public, so consumers can protect themselves from bad doctors. We must do everything feasible to ensure that more innocent people are not needlessly harmed for life.

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