Broken legal system chasing doctors away

By Carlos Muhletaler

As the leader of a statewide legal watchdog group, I am often asked to explain how all of us pay for lawsuit abuse in Florida even if we have not personally been sued. The current and impending neurosurgeon shortage in Palm Beach County is a perfect illustration of the very real consequences of the destructive legal environment in our state.

Doctors tell us again and again that the high cost of health care is largely attributable to the current legal environment. Fearful of being sued for malpractice, doctors increasingly practice defensive medicine, conducting unnecessary and costly procedures to protect themselves from the possibility of being sued for negligence. Additionally, doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums continue to skyrocket as insurance carriers face more and more malpractice litigation, encouraged by Florida’s broken legal system. This cost, too, is passed on to patients through the prices of medical goods and services.

It is bad enough that lawsuit abuse drives up health care costs for us all. But when doctors are so concerned about the liability environment that they flee the state or decide not to enter certain “high risk” medical professions, patient care suffers. The Palm Beach County Medical Society estimates a 65 percent shortage of on-call neurosurgeons by 2011. Just three years from now, there will be only seven practicing on-call neurosurgeons — the county needs 20 in order to meet patient needs. South Florida is already experiencing the serious consequences of such a doctor shortage. Care is delayed at times when lives are on the line, as in the tragic case of Mary Stone, who died too young because she couldn’t get the specialized help she needed quickly enough.

In 2004, Florida voters approved the trial lawyer-sponsored “three strikes” law, making Florida uniquely unfriendly to doctors by revoking their medical license if hit with three malpractice judgments. This pushes doctors to settle even the most meritless lawsuits. The trial bar framed the ballot measure as an initiative to protect patients, but the truth is that it drives doctors out of Florida, serving instead as another lucrative way to line personal injury lawyers’ pockets. In one doctor’s words, “This [law] opened the door to every bogus lawsuit possible. With the sense that we all had bulls-eyes on our back, we left.”

Our state’s “hellhole” legal system is driving doctors out of Florida and discouraging new physicians from entering the field in our state, and patients are suffering as a result. This year, the Legislature should enact common-sense legal reforms to address this crisis before it gets any worse. Florida Stop Lawsuit Abuse encourages our elected officials to enact common-sense limits on liability that protect and improve patient care and encourage physicians to practice medicine in Florida. Personal injury lawyers say they are protecting the public by pursuing lawsuits against negligent doctors. But the truth is that, too often, the legal system is abused for these lawyers’ personal gain. When the legal system is abused, we all pay, and we all lose.
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