Friday, July 16, 2004

Malpractice, Good for Everybody

Vilifying John Edwards as a trial lawyer hasn’t worked very well for the Republicans, who seem to have misjudged to what degree the public shares their visceral hatred for personal injury attorneys—in their innocence, many Republicans simply do not realize how much their version of common sense simply reflects their class interests. It isn’t that very many thoughtful people think that expensive lawsuits and occasional lottery-scale payouts are a rational way to curb the greed and arrogance of corporations. It’s just that in our dysfunctional system, random legal remedies are getting to be the only check on the power of money. If regulators won’t regulate, if legislators won’t legislate, if journalists won’t denounce, what else? In a nation of people on the take, the worst excesses can only be moderated by other people on the take. Why the enormous amounts of money some lawyers make from injury cases upsets the Republicans beats me. Aren’t they the party in favor of enormous rewards for dubious services? In red-state, red meat America, the Land of Betting on the Come, high rolling is as honorable as holy rolling. Junk politics, junk bonds, junk religion aren’t that much different, or less profitable, than junk lawsuits. If it pays, it’s patriotic. So why the hostility to shysters by folks who love CEOs?

By the way, if you really wanted to cut down on frivolous injury lawsuits, the obvious first step to take would be ensure that everybody had a guaranteed access to decent health care since a huge proportion of suits begin not out of the prospect of a big payday but out of fear of being ruined by medical expenses—at the outset, all the scalded lady wanted was enough money to pay her hospital bill. An efficient, universal health care system is out of the question, however, since it would lower the profits of the medical industry and put untold thousands of insurance company bureaucrats out of work. Anyhow, and this is the obvious consideration that never seems to be considered, the malpractice suits have their good side for the health industry. Because of the endlessly hyped threat of lawsuits, the doctors and hospitals are obliged to practice defensive medicine and order a host of expensive tests and procedures, most of which are not performed pro bono. I’m not aware if anybody has done the arithmetic, but do we know that the increased cost of insurance is as great as the increased profits from all those extra X-rays and blood workups? Many doctors find it personally distasteful to waste their patient’s money. My point is that the system provides them both an incentive to overspend and a handy and elastic excuse. Meanwhile, the purported malpractice crisis is also useful to right-wing politicians, who can blame escalating medical costs on lawsuits and thus deflect attention from the grotesque structural inefficiency of the system.

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