'Sicko' solution misses the mark

The SE Texas Record Aug. 14, 2007, 8:52am

Dr. Evelyn Tobias Merrill

By Dr. Evelyn Tobias-Merrill

"Sicko," Michael Moore's cinematic criticism of the U.S. health care system, misses the mark.

While Mr. Moore is busy extolling the benefits of health care in countries like Cuba, he overlooks or ignores the malady that has hurt our health care system: frivolous lawsuits and abusive legal shenanigans.

While Texas has passed meaningful medical liability reforms – resulting in dramatic benefits to Texas health care consumers – abusive lawsuits continue to strain our health care resources both here at home and across the country.

As the New York Sun recently reported, malpractice premiums for one New York hospital jumped 175 percent to $1.3 billion. These crushing premiums cut into nurse staffing and emergency room personnel and stall hospital investment in new and innovative medical equipment and expanded emergency centers.

Or consider the impact litigation has had on disposable respirator masks. Not long ago, makers of these respirator masks, which sell for about $1 each, startled Congress and health care leaders when they announced that Americans might not have access to these devices in the event of a flu pandemic.

How could this small device suddenly be in "ominously short supply," as reported by Business Week magazine? This is the United States, after all, and we are not accustomed to waiting months for our health care (like our neighbors do in Canada). And we certainly don't expect or are prepared for the absence of medicines or medical devices needed to stay healthy. Yet, that is exactly what we are facing thanks to lawsuit abuse.

Manufacturers of disposable respirator masks are simply the latest victim of the national explosion of silicosis and asbestos litigation. Suddenly, an industry that faced about 100 lawsuits a year was hit with more than 300,000 in a two-year period. While thousands of these cases have been dismissed, manufacturers have spent millions of dollars defending or settling cases. At least one company shut down its production of these fluid-resistant masks because of the skyrocketing liability.

What is even more troubling and frightening, of course, is the impact on those Americans who use and need these simple masks for health reasons – and who now may find them in short supply or not available at all.

And this is only one example of how excessive, abusive litigation decreases access to needed and effective medicines and medical devices.

The impact of excessive litigation is real:

- The fear of being sued reduced the number of American companies researching contraceptives from 13 to two.

- Lawsuits and even the mere threat of litigation are leading reasons only a handful of companies are manufacturing flu vaccine today.If the liability risk were not so high, perhaps more companies would be making vaccines today, and we wouldn't find ourselves dependent upon such a fragile and unreliable supply system.

- Seventy-five percent of suppliers of biomaterials – such as pacemakers and stents – have banned sales to the United States because they fear litigation.Each year, more than 7 million Americans are either saved or live much improved lives by these types of devices, but our suppliers are disappearing.

Lawsuit abuse doesn't cut with a scalpel.It takes a hatchet to an entire industry. It runs effective therapies off the market, increases costs for all of us and creates a climate of fear that can stifle innovation.

Ironically, the countries whose health care systems Mr. Moore extols – France, Canada and Cuba among them – don't suffer the litigation abuses that we do.

In Texas, we've worked hard to end the litigation lottery. We must protect our progress and guard against efforts to roll back reforms or create new ways to sue or we may see how truly "sicko" our system can be.

Dr. Evelyn Tobias Merrill is a physician, a volunteer board member of Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse in Corpus Christi and a spokesperson for Sick of Lawsuits. Sick of Lawsuits is a public education campaign aimed at drawing attention to the healthcare emergency created by lawsuit abuse.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is a nonprofit, grassroots movement dedicated to making the public better aware of the cost and consequences of lawsuit abuse. With local chapters across the state, CALA counts count more than 25,000 supporters among its ranks. For more information, please visit www.sickoflawsuits.org.

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