Letter to Star Ledger Concerning Tort Reform & Medical Malpractice in NJ

Mininno Law Office sent the following letter to the Star Ledger in New Jersey in response to a recent Op/Ed piece in support of tort reform:

Dear Editor:

This week, the Star-Ledger ran an Op/Ed piece from a tort-reform group called the Pacific Research Institute, which openly blamed malpractice suits for the ailing economy.  This group, (which is funded by tobacco companies, insurance lobbyists and corporate healthcare giants), claim that the millions of dollars spent each year on “defensive medicine” and “frivolous” malpractice lawsuits are draining the local economy and forcing doctors out of the state.  And while the theory sounds nice, is there any truth to the tort-reform argument?

The short answer is no.  It just seems that way because of the huge financial backing of the medical and insurance industry allows them to penetrate the media with unscientific research and biased opinions in support of tort reform.  For example, this same group (PRI) successfully argued just two years ago that global warming was “make believe” and did not exist.  As a result, the country waited several years to address this time sensitive issue that continues to affect our planet.

So what is the truth on medical malpractice and tort-reform?  The truth is that a medical malpractice crisis does exist in this country—but it has nothing to do with the lawsuits that follow the negligent conduct of doctors.  A quick look at the statistics (and true scientific research) shows that actual incidents of medical malpractice occur each year at an alarming rate.  The Institute of Medicine reports that 98,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors.  According to the FDA, medical errors are the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, ranking higher than automobile accidents, breast cancer and AIDS.  Clearly, this is more than a few rare, unintentional mistakes or the result of  “frivolous” malpractice suits.

Furthermore, the medical malpractice crisis has become so bad that Medicare, Medicaid and other large insurance companies will deny payment as of October 1, 2008 for “never events,” or medical mistakes that should never occur in a hospital setting.  The following list contains some of these “never events,” as well as statistics to show just how prevalent these “never events” really are:

  • Medication Errors- 1.5 million people each year are killed, sickened or injured from medication errors according to the Institute of Medicine.
  • Foreign Objects Left In the Body- Occurs in 1500 patients each year according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Wrong Site Surgery (surgery on the wrong body part or person)- Occurs in one (1) out of 112,994 operations according to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO)
  • Patient Death or Disability from Contaminated Drugs or Devices- Just this year alone, contaminated heparin has been linked to 81 hospital deaths and over 700 injuries nationwide
  • Stage 3 or Stage 4 bedsores– 2982 patients develop these pressure sores per day according to the National Decubitus Foundations.

Most people would agree that patients injured as a result of a serious medical mistake have every legal right to file a malpractice suit.  Survivors of medical malpractice lose their jobs, the ability to provide for their family and the ability to live a normal life.  Furthermore, in the state of New Jersey, “frivolous” lawsuits are almost non-existent.  Before a lawyer can file suit on behalf of an injured client, a licensed medical doctor must certify that the defendant physician chose not to follow basic rules of medicine, which led to a patient’s injury or death.

So if insurance lobbyists, corporate healthcare giants and negligent doctors are that concerned about the impact medical malpractice lawsuits are having on the economy, I suggest that they invest some of the millions of dollars they currently pay lobbyists and PR people to make the medical community a safer place.  Maybe billion dollar hospitals can implement policies that allow doctors to get more sleep or a take a break between grueling operations.  Or they can invest in bar code system in which medications are scanned and recorded to prevent errors.  Or just maybe tort reform supporters could make a donation in the name of proper staffing and personnel in hospitals to ensure that immobile patients are repositioned every two hours to prevent bedsores.

Obviously, if insurance lobbyists, corporate healthcare giants and negligent doctors spent the same time, finances and energy addressing the real root of the malpractice crisis, medical malpractice suits would naturally decline.  After all, malpractice caps will not stop the lawsuits—it will just limit the amount a negligent doctor’s insurance company will pay to a patient’s family.   Patient safety, however, will stop the lawsuits, save hospitals and doctors money in the long run and prevent innocent people from falling victim to careless or preventable medical mistakes.

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