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Beware Malpractice Hysteria

Medical establishment seeks law to curtail rights of mistreated patients.

In the rush to restrict our legal rights, some politicians are forgetting that they serve all the people, not just the powerful, and many doctors are abandoning their duty to be advocates for patients. All this is at the bidding of a medical establishment that wants privileges no one else in America has -- or should have.

Case in point: Dr. Lewis Stocks, who became the poster child for medical malpractice liability caps in March when he told a newspaper that his insurance rates had shot up 325 percent despite being free of claims.

The story was supposed to make the case for caps, which proponents say would lower insurance rates by limiting what injured patients can recover for non-economic damages, also known as human losses. Stocks' supposed plight struck many as unbelievably outrageous.

Unbelievable turned out to be the right word. After The News & Observer reported his claim, injured patients brought forward a different story. The paper discovered that Stocks has been sued nine times and admitted to negligence in three cases. In one case, Stocks' patient died.

The Stocks case reveals a medical establishment that's ignoring the facts and pressuring politicians to restrict patients' rights with its hysteria-driven push for caps. The N.C. Medical Society, which directed reporters to Stocks in the first place, even says malpractice liability has put our state "on the brink of disaster."

In fact, the sky isn't falling. Doctors are flocking to, not fleeing, North Carolina. The number of doctors here is growing twice as fast as the state's population. This includes healthy growth in specialties such as neurosurgery and OB/GYN.

At a rally in Raleigh, politicians and doctors declared that caps have worked in California, ignoring the fact that after the enactment of caps, premiums shot to an all-time high. Insurance reform finally lowered California's rates.

One thing we should all agree on is the value of accountability. If I run a stop sign and hit someone, I have to pay for my mistake. A jury of my peers will decide what I should pay. The medical establishment wants to be above all that. It wants the same cap on recovery for human losses in all cases, no matter what damage is done to an individual patient. It wants a cap that would not even increase with inflation.

The dual messages are clear. First, injured patients -- especially retirees, homemakers and children, all of whom cannot prove lost income -- are on their own. Second, the medical establishment believes North Carolinians aren't smart enough to sit on a jury and make case-by-case decisions.

A proposal in the N.C. House would go further. In addition to pushing caps, the bill would hide from consumers some important information on nursing homes. You couldn't find out if a home is safe. And if something terrible happened to mom at a home, you couldn't use state inspection reports -- funded by you as a taxpayer -- to make your case in court.

Hiding information isn't new for the medical establishment. Right now, if you as a consumer want to check a doctor's record on malpractice, there's no simple way to do it. But checking would be a good idea: When it comes to disciplining doctors, the N.C. Medical Board ranks 45th in the country, according to consumer group Public Citizen.

There are ways far superior to caps and secrecy to ensure access to quality health care. The N.C. Coalition for Patients' Rights supports legislation to provide greater access to information, enact insurance reforms and offer tax credits to health-care providers in under-served areas.

The Coalition is also committed to protecting the rights of injured patients -- like those that Dr. Lewis Stocks admitted he treated with negligence and then apparently forgot when the N.C. Medical Society put him in front of the press.


Special to The Observer


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