Thursday, January 08, 2004

Bush and GOP push bogus malpractice 'crisis' with dubious witnesses

Dr. Robert Zaleski a Wheeling, W. Va., orthopedic surgeon was one of two dozen surgeons to walk off the job in January to protest his state's high costs of malpractice insurance arguing that "frivolous lawsuits" were driving up insurance premiums and forcing physicians to leave the state.
It appears that Zaleski may be more a source of the problem than a victim of it. Between 1987 and 2002, according to the West Virginia Board of Medicine, patients filed 14 lawsuits against Zaleski, eight of which resulted in payouts that together came to $1.7 million. In a 1985 lawsuit (one not among the 14 reported to the Board of Medicine), he admitted in a deposition to being addicted to prescription painkillers for a substantial part of the time that he was operating on people in the early 1980s. Not only was he a drug addict, but to maintain his Percodan habit, Zaleski allegedly wrote prescriptions for other local addicts.

In February 2001, responding to local doctors' allegations of 'lawsuit abuse", the Charleston Gazette undertook a computer-assisted analysis of more than 2,000 medical malpractice claims reported to the West Virginia Board of Medicine. The paper determined that far from being in a state of crisis, West Virginia ranked 35th in the country for median malpractice payouts. The paper also found that both the number of malpractice claims and the dollar amounts of the settlements and verdicts had actually declined between 1993 and 2001.

Last July, congressional Republicans launched hearings featuring testimony of a West Virginia doctor named Dr. Samuel Roberts. Roberts, one of only three doctors who testified, told the committee that he could not afford the insurance to continue delivering babies, and claimed that this year, "I will have to stop, leaving seven counties around me with no family physician delivering prenatal or maternity care." Roberts omitted some critical facts that might have explained some of his insurance woes: In 1987, he pleaded guilty to five counts of cocaine possession and was sentenced to five years probation, according to the Charleston Gazette. In response, the state suspended his medical license for a year, though it later reduced the penalty to five years of supervised probation. A year after his dire threats of doom to Congress, Roberts is today still practicing medicine.

In a speech at Little Rock Jan. 26, President Bush pointed out Dr. Sara McBee of Fayetteville and said that she'd stopped delivering babies because of rising insurance costs that were "a direct result of too many junk lawsuits." Bush was promoting his legislation to restrict medical malpractice lawsuits. He told the crowd:
"Sara McBee is here. There's Sara. She's from Fayetteville, Arkansas. She practices family medicine. She was delivering between 80 and 100 babies a year. Now, there's a soul - a good soul, who loves life to the point where she's willing to take her talents and deliver babies. It must be an unbelievably satisfying profession to bring life to be.
"And yet, in July of 2002, her insurance premiums had more than doubled. See, the litigation culture made it nearly impossible for her to practice her love. I say nearly impossible, because she wouldn't break her commitments to expecting patients and hung in there for a year. But her premiums continued to rise, and Dr. McBee has stopped delivering babies, as a direct result of too many junk lawsuits. And that's not right. That's not right." (Applause.)
Bush did not mention (although he knew it, according to McBee), that a medical malpractice suit is pending against McBee by a couple who say their child was born with brain damage and multiple disabilities because of mistakes by the doctor.

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