St. Petersburg Times: Political Malpractice

St. Petersburg Times: Political Malpractice

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Opinion

Political malpractice

Florida’s medical malpractice crisis sounds somewhat less dramatic in sworn testimony. It’s easier to separate fact from opinion when you’re under oath.

By Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 16, 2003


Among the countless words that have been written or said about Florida’s so-called medical malpractice crisis, these are the mere 25 that made a profound difference this week: “Do you swear or affirm that the evidence you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

Prefaced with that question, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee virtually demolished the argument that patients’ rights must be sacrificed if there is to be an affordable insurance market for doctors and physicians.

Among the startling admissions:

There are no “frivolous lawsuits” against doctors – despite the Bush brothers’ fancy for the phrase – because Florida law put a stop to them more than 14 years ago.

The medical lobbies have only anecdotes, not hard facts, to back their claim that Florida is losing doctors, emergency rooms and trauma centers; if anything, there are more licensed doctors every year.

The Office of Insurance Regulation doesn’t probe the data that companies submit to justify their rates and doesn’t require executives to attest to the truth of it.

There has been no explosion in actual malpractice or litigation, and the insurance company that underwrites the most Florida doctors considers this its most profitable state. “If we can’t make money at these rates,” its president conceded, “we ought to quit.” (His company pays the Florida Medical Association $500,000 a year, which is 10 percent of the FMA’s budget, to recommend its policies to Florida doctors regardless of what competitors might charge.)

Summing it up, Rules Chairman Tom Lee said the Senate would have to rewrite the findings of “fact” that went into its bill last week. “We’re not going to put legislative findings in a bill that can’t be sustained by the evidence,” he said. “That’s malpractice.”

The virtue of sworn testimony – an extreme rarity in Tallahassee – is to separate opinion from fact. The malpractice controversy was on a wrong track from the beginning because of the refusal of the governor’s task force to put its witnesses under oath. But while the Senate’s 11th-hour decision to take sworn testimony may have stiffened its resolve against a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, the development came too late to throw the train altogether off the track.

The big question, senators say, is how much higher the limit will be. That’s the wrong question; the right one is whether insurance reform is what Florida doctors really need.

Physicians would also benefit, it seems clear, if the legislation were to include a ban on insurance industry payola to their professional associations. And while they’re at it, lawmakers should come to the aid of every Floridian by fitting the Office of Insurance Regulation with a sharper set of dentures.

The larger lesson this week is that all legislative testimony should be taken under oath – not for fear that unsworn speakers might lie, but to remind them to distinguish their facts from their propaganda. A law or other public policy can never be better than the facts that go into the making of it.

© Copyright 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved

Source: St. Petersburg Times