The New York Times recently reported the story of a 59-year-old patient in California, suffering from nausea and pain in his abdomen. The cause? A six-inch metal surgical clamp buried inside his body. And not only that–this was actually the second clamp found inside this man’s body. Eight months after he undergone intestinal surgery, a clamp was discovered after he developed an infection. This second clamp was likely from that same intestinal surgery, and now it, too, would need to be removed in an operation.
Such horror stories are unfortunately not uncommon. Some 1,500 people per year go to the hospital and later find out they have sponges or instruments left in their bodies, according to a recent study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. And of course this problem is just a small subset of the sorts of preventable injuries that sometimes occur when patients seek medical care, whether they are prescribed the wrong drug, or given the right drug in the wrong amounts, or find that a surgeon has done a procedure on the wrong part of their body. As many as 98,000 people die in hospitals in the U.S. each year due to preventable medical errors, far more than die from car accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS, according to National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.
Right now, patients have recourse in the courts, where they can seek compensation when they suffer from negligent treatment. But President George W. Bush wants to make it easier for negligent doctors to get off the hook. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he received $2.8 million for his 2000 campaign from doctors and other health professionals, who are pushing for this change. “No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit,” he proclaimed in his State of the Union speech this week. However, as the above examples show, medical errors in the country are often serious and patients’ concern about them is far from frivolous.
Bush has endorsed legislation approved by the House last year, whose members collected $14.7 million from health professionals in the 2002 election cycle alone, 60 percent of that by Republicans. The House capped “non-economic” damages at $250,000, among other changes to make it tougher for patients to be compensated when injured. Non-economic damages are typically awarded for such injuries as lost ability to bear children, disfigurement, and loss of limbs. While some of these injuries may not necessarily bring about a total loss of livelihood (which would qualify for economic damages), they nevertheless are severe and permanent problems for the person affected. The legislation stalled in the Senate last year, but with Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), a proponent of medical malpractice reform, and a doctor himself, the prognosis for passage of the legislation may be somewhat rosier. Dr. Frist, as he prefers to be called, is the recipient of $1.3 million from health care professionals for his Senate campaigns, more than any other senator.
Consumer groups such as the Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen say that the cause of skyrocketing insurance rates for doctors, which is driving the push for caps, is largely the product of the insurance industry and its poor investments. As The New York Times editorial pages noted recently, insurance companies have done poorly in the stock market in recent years, and accordingly have increased their premium prices to make up for it. Doctors, strapped by managed care inspired budget cuts, find it harder and harder to keep up with the payments.
Why is the Bush Administration so committed to limiting the legal rights of injured patients? There may be a political reason on top of the usual currying favor for campaign contributors. Any push for “liability reform,” can be made into a big dig at trial lawyers, who represent the injured in court and therefore oppose liability reform and who are a traditionally important source of campaign money for Democrats.
Of course, when a person finds out he has not one, but two surgical clamps “lost” in his body within a short time period, it doesn’t much matter if he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a doctor or an insurance agent, for that matter. It is ordinary human nature to want the medical establishment to take responsibility for errors like these. Politics and campaign contributions should have no bearing on the matter.