With the campaign season heating up, we're once again finding ourselves
besieged by TV and radio ads by candidates slinging political mud at their
Here in Pennsylvania, ultra-conservative Republican Senator Rick
Santorum has wasted no time filling the airwaves with attacks aimed at his
slightly less conservative Democratic challenger Bob Casey.
The Santorum campaign ad that most caught my attention so far this
season is one in which Casey is criticized for opposing tort reform.
Of course, Santorum's ad uses very carefully crafted wording. The ad
talks about how Santorum stands up for the rights of doctors who are being
driven from the state by money-hungry trial lawyers. Move over, Mother Teresa.
For years, Santorum has campaigned against high awards for plaintiffs in
medical malpractice suits, and has called for a $250,000 cap on non-economic
damages for pain and suffering. But wait! Santorum forgets to mention that he
supported his wife's attempts to win $500,000 in damages in a malpractice case
against her chiropractor in 1999. That's twice the limit that Santorum would
like to impose on everyone else.
Hypocrisy aside, let's take a look at what the issue is really all about
-- and what it's NOT about.
It's not about lawyers. It's not about greed. It's about the rights of
everyday people who suddenly find themselves victims of preventable medical
It's about the man who had the wrong leg amputated.
It's about the woman who had an unnecessary mastectomy because of a
false cancer diagnosis.
It's about the baby who will have to live with cerebral palsy and mental
retardation because of a mismanaged labor and delivery.
And it's about the more than 100,000 patients who are killed each year
due to medical negligence or wrongdoing.
Santorum is apparently too busy pandering for votes from the physicians'
associations to care about the victims.
And he is apparently too busy pandering for votes to care about the real
problems at the core of the issue.
Santorum blames the issue on the lawyers who represent the victims and
win large awards. He blames them for driving up the malpractice insurance
premiums that doctors must pay. And he blames them for driving the physicians
out of Pennsylvania in search of states with lower liability costs. That's just
the kind of political rhetoric that raises emotions and wins votes but
obfuscates the real nature of the problem. And the real nature of the problem
First, the economy is partially to blame. Insurance companies typically
invest their capital in the stock market and interest-bearing investments. When
the stock market and interest rates are down, insurance companies have a harder
time paying malpractice awards. So premiums go up, the doctors complain, and
Rick Santorum jumps.
Which leads me to to the second cause of the problem: malpractice
itself. By campaigning for tort reform, Santorum is trying to do away with the
last resort of average Americans against physicians who do them harm. He is, in
effect, telling us that "malpractice happens," and that physicians
shouldn't have to pay so much for their mistakes. The victims should just get
The physicians who support tort reform need to remember the Hippocratic
Oath, by which they swore to do no harm.
And the medical community and our lawmakers should be working together
to address the real cause of malpractice -- incompetent physicians -- and not
just the symptoms.
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based
writer and activist. Her views on politics, human rights, and social justice
issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines
worldwide. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.