Frivolous lawsuits and high insurance premiums at crisis level nationwide

The most important thing that we can do for the healthcare system, and in turn for the citizens of this country, is improve access to quality, affordable healthcare. Republicans have spent the past few years working consistently to do that.

Health savings accounts have increased the access of small-business owners and the uninsured to vital healthcare coverage. The Medicare prescription-drug benefit, while it faced a few setbacks getting off the ground, has already proved successful in providing millions of American seniors access to the prescription drugs they need. And I have introduced legislation to make it easier for Americans to save and prepare for their future long-term-care needs, one of the greatest healthcare expenses an American family can incur.

But there is a major healthcare crisis that has been growing steadily over the past decade or so that, due to the power of special-interest groups, we have been unable to address. I am referring to the medical liability crisis caused by the destructive impact of frivolous lawsuits, skyrocketing insurance premiums and the defensive medicine they induce. We cannot ignore the effect of these forces on Americans’ access to the healthcare services they need.

Look, for a moment, at my home state of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a nonpartisan organization, recently released its 2005 “State of Medicine in Pennsylvania” report, in which it indicates that Pennsylvania’s healthcare system “is stressed and access questionable.”

That diagnosis, one would think, is bad enough. But delve further into the report and the news gets even worse. Pennsylvania is home to some of the world’s finest medical schools, and in 1994 50.5 percent of Pennsylvania doctors in training stayed in the state after completing their residency. Just 10 years later that number had decreased to a stunning 7.8 percent.

The fact that doctors are leaving my state in droves is less surprising when one considers that Pennsylvania has a per-physician liability payment of more than three times the national average. If current trends continue — and unless we do something, there is no reason to believe they won’t — Pennsylvania will face a shortfall of nearly 10,000 doctors by the year 2010.

This is simply unacceptable. It is often patients struggling with serious ailments who are most severely underserved. Specialists in fields like obstetrics, neurology and pediatrics are simply financially unable to take on the risks associated with practicing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard stories about women and expecting mothers having trouble seeing an ob/gyn — in many cases being forced to drive hours for a critical appointment. And while meeting with a group of doctors a few weeks ago I was told of seven patients in the Philadelphia region who tragically died from head trauma because they did not have access to a neurologist.

The time to act is now. Patients are dying because they cannot get the care they need, care that would be readily available if doctors did not live in fear of frivolous lawsuits and beneath the burden of high liability premiums.

So during Health Week here in the United States Senate, Republicans have introduced two bills designed to address this growing problem. The first, introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), is a broad-based bill that seeks to reduce the liability problem for physicians as a whole. The second, which I have introduced, is the Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies Act and focuses on ensuring that mothers and newborns have access to the obstetrical and gynecological services they need.

My bill will adopt the approach that has recently been successfully implemented in Texas. In 2003, Texas, via voter initiative, instituted a $750,000 stacked cap on non-economic damages. In no way does this law limit what a victim can recover in terms of medical bills, lost wages or any other economic damages suffered. But it does prevent the exorbitant “pain and suffering” damages that drive up insurance premiums and compel doctors to practice costly defensive medicine. Since its implementation, premiums in Texas have dramatically decreased and access to doctors has significantly increased.

In a recent column in the Austin American-Statesman, two Austin doctors noted that in the last three years, Austin alone has regained the 16 obstetricians that had been driven from the area in the two years before. Texas as a whole has gained 93 orthopedic surgeons, 81 obstetricians and 32 neurosurgeons. And the American Medical Association has removed Texas from its list of states in liability crisis (a list that, unfortunately, Pennsylvania is on). Texas is the only state ever to be removed from the list.

These are the results we are looking for in the 21 states like Pennsylvania, Mississippi and New York — states in serious liability crisis. These are the results that our expecting mothers, our newborn babies and our sick children need. These are the results that give doctors hope, hope enough for hundreds of them to leave their practice and their patients for a day and travel to Washington to express their support and ask for our help.

Our healthcare laws must serve the interests of the patients. These bills need to be debated, fairly and openly, on the floor of the United States Senate. They deserve an up-or-down vote, and they need to be passed.

We must make a choice — do we serve the patients and the doctors who wish to help them or do we serve the trial lawyers? By preventing debate and an up-or-down vote on these bills Monday evening, the Senate Democrats made their choice abundantly clear.

Santorum is a member of the Finance, Special Aging, Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Rules and Administration committees.