A Tale of Two Town Halls

Two congressional town hall meetings this week.  At one event, a question was raised.  At another, a couple of hundred miles to the south, that question was answered, but not in a way that should please advocates of meaningful health reform.

In Newark, Delaware, at a constituent gathering hosted by Representative Mike Castle (R-DE), Dr. Nicholas Biasatto, the president of the Delaware Medical Association, wondered why health reform legislation that has emerged from House committees contains no mention of medical liability reform.  As Dr. Biasatto pointed out, an estimated $70 billion to $127 billion is spent each year on defensive medicine – tests and procedures that are performed primarily as protection against the possibility of litigation.

Had Dr. Biasatto been in Alexandria, Virginia, he would have heard a candid answer to his question from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who was taking part in a town hall meeting with Representative Jim Moran (D-VA).  Governor Dean said, “The reason tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everyone else they were taking on, and that’s the plain and simple truth.”

Governor Dean is to be commended for his candor, but his answer casts a spotlight on a glaring omission in the various health reform bills working their way through Congress.  With policymakers scrambling to find ways to control rising healthcare costs, it makes little sense to treat the current medical liability system as sacrosanct.  Even if lawmakers don’t embrace the idea of caps on non-economic damages, as has been enacted in Texas, California and other states, there are other alternatives to a status quo that has ineffective mechanisms to filter out frivolous lawsuits and that adds billions of dollars to the national healthcare bill.

President Obama has said that we can’t allow politics and special interests to prevent essential health reform.  No one would disagree with that sentiment.  Thus, we shouldn’t deny Americans the health and economic benefits of medical liability reform simply out of fear of the nation’s trial attorneys.