Oversimplification to the Point of Distortion

There was an interesting court case in Alexandria, Virginia this week.  It seems that a personal injury attorney from Maryland had established a creative relationship with a Virginia chiropractor.  The two of them would hire ‘runners’ who would recruit people willing to pose as accident victims and seek care from the chiropractor.  They would then extract insurance settlements to compensate for their ‘injuries.’

Now, it would be wrong to use this case in describing the debate over tort reform as being between those interested in a fair judicial process versus lawyers looking for a quick and unethical payday.  That would be tremendously unfair to the many attorneys who represent their clients conscientiously and abide by the highest ethical standards.

Yet, in debates over and coverage of healthcare issues, we frequently see one side or another depicted in ways that don’t fairly describe their behavior or point of view.

Patient privacy is a prime example.  I can’t begin to count the number of news stories that have portrayed debates over the confidentiality of medical records as being between “privacy advocates” and the healthcare industry, as if health providers weren’t committed to protecting the rights and interests of patients.  On this issue, both sides of the discussion are “privacy advocates,” with the disagreements being over how to achieve both confidentiality and the essential flow of information to medical professionals.

What brings this matter to mind is an Associated Press article published yesterday about President Obama and congressional Republicans being at odds on the issue of medical liability reform.  The article characterizes the pro-liability reform position as being all about placing limitations on the damages an injured person can receive.  It isn’t until near the end of the article that it’s mentioned that the law in West Virginia – the state focused upon in the story – places a cap on noneconomic damages.

That’s what is not made clear in this article, and so often when this issue is discussed.  Those of us who support medical liability reform don’t want to impose a strict cap on damages in general.  In states where medical liability reform has been enacted – not only West Virginia, but Texas, California and others – there is no ceiling on the economic damages a plaintiff can receive.  Reformers are trying to bring some sense to the question of punitive damages, reining in those multimillion dollar verdicts that juries can award on a whim, and that have an effect on healthcare costs and patient access to care.  That distinction all too often doesn’t make it into news coverage.

There’s another interesting bit of oversimplification in that AP article.  It mentions that trial attorneys and consumer groups oppose liability reform because it would “lessen the incentive…for healthcare providers to act responsibility.”  Of course, this obscures the fact that the vast majority of physicians and hospitals do act responsibly and with the highest degree of professionalism, and that there is a sizeable gap between the number of malpractice suits filed and actual incidents of negligent care.

I could retaliate by talking about Maryland attorneys and Virginia chiropractors, but that would be wrong.