Georgia can keep patients safe

By Allison Kelly

Forget the interests of doctors and lawyers for a minute.

About 8 million other Georgians have a critical stake in healthcare reform that is often lost in the so-called "tort reform" debate: their safety.

In Georgia, insurance and medical lobbyists say they need to get rising malpractice insurance rates under control by limiting Georgians rights to hold doctors accountable in court for wrongful injury or death.

What they are not saying is that Georgia needs to get its malpractice under control.

But repeatedly negligent doctors here are allowed to continue practicing, unpunished.

A few bad apples are allowed to spoil the bunch. Since 1990, just 3.5 percent of Georgia doctors have been responsible for nearly 40 percent of all malpractice payouts, according to new research by Washington D.C. firm Public Citizen. This disputes the insurance companies' claim that malpractice litigation is a "lottery" system that randomly rewards malpractice victims while victimizing innocent doctors.

If Georgia's legal system is a lottery, then some doctors' numbers clearly come up more than others.

In fact, 18 doctors have each made between four and eight malpractice payouts during that same period n but have not been disciplined. Collectively, these negligent doctors have made 90 payouts to victims. Their damages total nearly $50 million.

With the state and medical community doing such a poor job of holding bad doctors accountable, it is no surprise that last year the Journal of the American Medical Association ranked Georgia as the 47th lowest in the nation in terms of quality of care.

Now is clearly not the time to put insurance companies' profits over patient safety and the rights of Georgians to hold bad doctors accountable.

The only proposal insurance and medical lobbyists have offered is to limit quality-of-life jury awards for malpractice victims and their families at $250,000.

Such a move degrades family values by equating the worth of someone's life n and injuries n with how much money they make. This puts a bargain-basement value on the lives of kids, grandparents and stay-at-home moms n who usually have little to no income.

Any reform that impacts the healthcare industry must first consider patient safety.

The truth is that doctors in Georgia and throughout the country continue to suffer burdensome insurance premiums.

But there are real solutions that would help lower insurance premiums and keep Georgia patients safe.

California doctors recently have enjoyed lower premiums, but not by arbitrarily capping quality of life damages for malpractice victims like insurance lobbyists want to do here in Georgia. Even after California voted to limit the amount of quality of life damages a medical malpractice victim could collect to $250,000, doctors still saw their insurance premiums rise 190 percent.

Under Proposition 103, California voters passed a major insurance reform that lowered malpractice premiums 2 percent between 1998 and 2001. This sunshine law requires insurance companies who want to raise their rates to take their case to the public, which can have their voices heard before the state simply rubber-stamps a premium hike and passes it along to consumers.

Some medical specialties have found success in establishing higher standards and discipline measures that reduce medical errors, thereby raising the overall quality of healthcare and, in turn, curbing the rise of malpractice insurance rates.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists embarked on such a program in 1985. It has since succeeded in cutting malpractice claims against anesthesiologists in half n while stopping their malpractice premiums from rising.

Allison Kelly represents Georgia Watch and can be reached at akelly@georgiawatch.org.