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WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
A real cure for the crisis in health care

By Sharon Smith | March 7, 2003 | Page 7

DOCTORS HAVE been walking picket lines from New Jersey to Illinois in recent months, striking against soaring medical malpractice costs. They have good reason to be angry at malpractice insurance rates that have doubled or tripled in as many years.

But they are shaking their fists in the wrong direction--heaping scorn on patients who are victims of the health care crisis. "When your water breaks, call your lawyer," one New Jersey doctor's picket sign sneered to his pregnant patients.

The American Medical Association is vigorously supporting the Bush administration's proposal to cap "pain-and-suffering" settlements at $250,000 in malpractice lawsuits, arguing that "frivolous" claims are the cause of skyrocketing medical costs.

But some 80 percent of malpractice victims never even file a lawsuit. And the vast majority of malpractice lawsuits are far from frivolous. Medical malpractice is a senseless human tragedy, as in the botched surgery of 17-year-old Jésica Santillán--who died last month after surgeons mistakenly transplanted a heart and lungs of the wrong blood type.

The National Academy of Sciences has reported that up to 98,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are due to medical malpractice. Surgeons have operated on the wrong arm, leg, eye or other body part at least 150 times since 1996.

George W. Bush's spin doctors have touted the fact that the new Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, is a doctor, implying that Congress will put patients' needs first under his leadership. But Frist's loyalties favor the free market and the Republican Party over the Hippocratic oath.

Frist's family fortune came from the largest for-profit hospital chain in the U.S., the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)--modeled on the Holiday Inn franchise. HCA has provided Frist with his largest campaign contributions, followed closely by health insurers and drug corporations.

One in seven Americans has no health coverage, and at least 65 million have no coverage for prescription drugs, but the new Senate leader's stated priority is a congressional ban on human embryo cell research--a favor Bush owes to his backers in the Christian Right.

Frist opposes passing the Patients' Bill of Rights--a toothless piece of legislation that would barely dent the health care crisis, now languishing in Congress for the sixth straight year. Nevertheless, Frist has blasted the Patients' Bill of Rights as "socialized medicine."

Frist is also spearheading Bush's plan to push retirees out of the non-profit Medicare system and into for-profit HMOs, by dangling a vague promise for a prescription benefit. But HMOs have dumped more than 2 million elderly patients in the last four years. In the topsy-turvy logic of the medical industrial complex, elderly and other chronically ill patients are not desirable "markets" for corporations supposedly providing health care.

The Bush administration's obsession with capping medical malpractice lawsuits shifts blame away from enormously profitable health care corporations. In fact, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress have proposed "capping" the inflated prices charged by drug companies, or monthly insurance premiums that reach $1,000 or more for a family of four.

Medical malpractice is a byproduct of the profit system--a spiral of endless cost-cutting by providers in search of higher revenues, leading to staffing cuts that endanger patients. A recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that, for every patient over four in a nurse's workload, the risk of death following surgery rises by 7 percent. "I estimate that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of deaths each year are due to low staffing," said Dr. Jack Needleman, an author of the study.

Doctors should be walking picket lines--but alongside nurses and other health care workers, to fight for better staffing and working conditions. And they should put pressure on Congress--not to pass caps on malpractice claims, but for a health care system that provides decent health care for the majority of the population.

That means opposing the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and fighting for a single-payer system. That, Dr. Frist, is socialized medicine.

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