Editorial: Malpractice limits

http://daily-journal.com

It was one of those overlooked stories easily passed over in the continuing drumbeat for nationalized healthcare.

A Cook County judge ruled that an Illinois law attempting to limit damages for medical malpractice is unconstitutional. Two years ago, amid a crisis in malpractice insurance and costs, Illinois lawmakers passed a law that put a cap on malpractice lawsuit awards for pain and suffering.

Now the case will head to the Illinois Supreme Court. Twice before, the court has thrown out attempts to limit medical malpractice awards.

Illinois law still allows full recovery for any economic damages or for the cost of treatment. If you lose your livelihood, or need medical care, a court can still award those. The economic value of just living a year comes out to be about $40,000 under the law.

What was at issue is pain and suffering. Those amounts were limited to $500,000 for physicians and $1 million for hospitals.

The institution of the law two years ago appears to have had mixed results. The number of medical lawsuits has dropped, down by 25 percent in Cook County. Medical malpractice insurance rates appear to have stabilized, but not to have declined. Insurance officials basically said they were waiting for a test case to run its way through the court system before cutting rates.

One decided plus has been an increase in the number of doctors in Illinois. There are 2,000 more physicians practicing than in 2005. The flight of doctors from Illinois to neighboring states appears to have slowed or stopped. The immediate crisis that led to the passage of the law — the difficulty in just finding a specialist in a high liability area — appears to have eased.

This entire issue pits two powerful groups against each other — the medical community and the legal community. There’s other controversies, too. No one wants to drive good doctors out of business. Everyone wants to see incompetent doctors removed quickly. Everyone realizes the cost of making huge awards, but when juries look over and see an unfairly injured patient, the sympathy gene goes way up.

Yet it is irrational to suggest that society should proceed without limits. Again, we are not talking about actual economic damages. We are talking about how much “suffering” is worth.

This much is certain. What if the private system eventually fails? What if the government either winds up running the system or assuming all liability?

Will there be limits then, and limits on what the state can afford?

One need only look at the state’s failed record of funding school construction to say the answer will be an overwhelming “yes.”
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