Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The local paper of note, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, has been doing a good job as of late. Yet every now and then an important piece of information in a story slips to the bottom. Under the general journalistic method, the more important a section, the higher up in the story it should appear. Yet in a story today about the Gubernatorial candidates (Democrat State Auditor Claire McCaskill and Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt) position on tort reform, a vital point regarding the validity of the entire argument was left for the end of the article.
State Insurance Department statistics undermine the claims that litigation is driving up the cost of medical malpractice insurance. The department has reported that claims against doctors fell 14 percent to 625 in 2003 compared with 726 the year before.

The agency also said medical malpractice benefits to injured victims dropped dramatically while insurance companies collected more money. The department also reported that the payment of the maximum for pain and suffering damages fell to six in 2003 from 13 in 2002.

Both McCaskill and Blunt favor some form of cap on plaintiff awards, but they differ in how far to extend protection for insurance agencies. Yet the state's own review shows that the argument behind the insurance companies pleas for protection may not hold water.

In general, trial lawyers have been a favorite whipping boy for the Republican party. Especially when they are suing insurance companies for damages. Even Democrats are beginning to go for the political lay-up, settlement caps, instead of examining the industry and the issues. The cry has been that the exponential growth in malpractice insurance is directly tied to large settlements awarded by pushover juries. Yet at the same time, the insurance companies don't seem to be going through a financial crisis. One would assume they must be; any company raising their prices by 100+% must be nearing borderline insolvency, but none seem to be. The fact that most of these companies also live and die by their stock prices should give people pause to consider other reasons why they may need to give their earnings a boost.

Many others have commented on the characterizations surrounding malpractice settlements, so I won't go into them here. Often these settlements come after evidence of repeated negligence in a particular area, and the settlements are usually whittled down enormously after the initial finding. Yet the argument persists that lawsuits alleging negligence or wrongdoing on the part of doctors and insurance companies are more often then not vehicles for personal enrichment, hurting those folks who simply want to see justice done.

These arguments often spread into other areas of civil lawsuits. Blunt's version of tort reform would affect not only health related lawsuits, but all civil lawsuits. Again the argument is that wily trial lawyers are out there to make a quick profit off honest companies, driving prices up for all of us.

If we spent more time looking at the numbers, and less time listening to rhetoric, perhaps the real reasons behind rising health-care costs will be brought to light and real change can occur.

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