Not long ago, President Bush came to Illinois to give a speech about "medical liability reform." He claimed, as others have, that doctors are fleeing the Illinois counties of Madison and St. Clair, mostly to get away from lawyers.
"Lawyers are filing baseless suits against hospitals and doctors," the president said. "That's just a plain fact."
I practice law in Madison and St. Clair counties, and I know that some residents are nervous. "What if I'm left without a doctor?" they think. It's hard to blame them. For nearly three years, we've had headline after headline about doctors leaving town. Then we had President Bush saying the same thing. (Never mind that it would take most residents of Madison and St. Clair counties only ten or fifteen minutes to cross the Mississippi River and find a doctor in St. Louis.)
Four months after the president's visit, the headlines continue. Here's one from last week's Alton Telegraph: "Another OB/Gyn leaving . . . Only remaining female baby doctor in area to head to Oklahoma."
It was the paper's lead story. If the headline were any larger, it would not have fit on the page.
So who's leaving this time? It's Dr. Christine Taylor. "There was just some uncertainty here," she told the newspaper. "It's the malpractice rates, but also because of other doctors leaving."
I know some of the doctors who have left, and their motives often had nothing to do with lawsuits. Meanwhile, new doctors have come to town, but this isn't considered newsworthy.
As for Dr. Taylor, she seems to be one of those classic cases: a doctor leaving town because of lawyers and lawsuits and "malpractice rates."
But wait. Could there have been another motive for her leaving?
It seems so. Due to bad planning on someone's part, the same newspaper with the large headline about Dr. Taylor also featured a quarter-page advertisement from the remaining doctors in her practice. It began like this:
A Notice to the Patients of Christine Taylor, MD
Dr. Christine Taylor will be leaving the medical practice of Illini Medical Associates, S.C. on June 24, 2005. She is returning to her home state of Oklahoma to be closer to family. We wish Dr. Taylor and her family the best in her relocation.
What's that? "Closer to her family?" While Taylor did mention the family motive in the newspaper article, she suggested her biggest reason for leaving was the "uncertainty" surrounding lawsuits and malpractice rates. But that's not mentioned in the ad.
So was it the lawyers who drove Dr. Taylor out of town? Or was it her own desire to be closer to her family?
Do I need to mention again that since 1996, there have been only 11 medical malpractice verdicts in Madison County? And that the doctors won seven, but the patients won only four? (When doctors complain about "malpractice rates," by the way, they often mean, "My net income is not as large as I think I deserve." Nothing wrong with that: doctors should be highly paid. But they shouldn't use doublespeak to mask their real meaning.)
Back to Dr. Taylor. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume the lawyers drove her out of town. If so, it should be safe to assume that things must be a lot better in Oklahoma, where Dr. Taylor is headed. Right?
Wrong. Just ten seconds of searching on Google yielded this from the Oklahoma State Medical Association: "Critical Condition: Oklahoma is at risk of losing our doctors because of lawsuit abuse!"
Dr. Taylor might be in for a nasty surprise in Oklahoma, especially if she's easily swayed by the type of propoganda we've been hearing for three years in Illinois. But there's another problem: If the propoganda drives her out of Oklahoma, where can she go next?
I could go on, but why bother? There are at least 34 states that doctors claim are "in crisis."
Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that rather than asking some tough questions of their insurance companies, doctors have found it much more convenient to simply blame the lawyers.
Lawyers are an easy target. It brings to mind another feature of our local newspaper that won't go away: the half-page anti-lawyer ads by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has also started advertising again on the radio, which hasn't happened since the 2004 election. You can read about the radio and print ads on the Chamber's website.
The ads are so obnoxious that the Illinois State Bar Association has decided to get involved. According to an article in the April issue of the Illinois Bar Journal by Illinois State Bar Association president Ole Pace, the ISBA has "commisioned a Duke law professor to do an unbiased study of the relationship between malpractice cases and liability insurance costs."
Pace's article continues:
We need some facts. Our profession has a real commitment to real reform when it is needed. As a public service, to provide an impartial, factual basis for a real decision, your ISBA commissioned Neil Vidmar, a highly respected professor at Duke Law School, to study and report on malpractice cases in our courts, looking at outcomes and cost and their relationship to liablity insurance costs. When the study is done, we'll have a solid and unbiased base of knowledge.
The report should be released soon. If its conclusions are pro-lawyer, it will be interesting to see how the tort-reform lobby will attack the reputation of this "highly respected professor."
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