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Medical Minute: In Safe Hands? Tort Reform: The Solution or the Punishment?

Around the United States, doctors, insurance companies, lawyers and patients are at odds. The issue is what to do about the increasing numbers of malpractice lawsuits and record-setting verdicts. Doctors and insurance companies say they have a solution – many patients and lawyers say it's not a solution, but a punishment.

The message from these doctors is clear here patients rally with a different aim.

The bottom line for both is patient safety. Doctors say they can't afford the skyrocketing malpractice insurance.

In states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, some are closing their doors.

"Doctors are having to decide whether they want to continue practicing in Florida, whether they want to continue practicing period, or go into some other field,” comments Dr. Robert Cline, the President and Cardiac Surgeon of the Florida Medical Association.

Nationwide as many as 15 percent of OB-GYNs won't deliver babies, and some states have almost no neurosurgeons. Patients are affected.

Doctor Corlin says the issue is under control in California. The reason? Tort reform. Non-economic damages, the so-called pain and suffering, are limited to $250,000.

Doctor Corlin says patient’s benefit.

"Doctors don't pay malpractice insurance rates. Hospitals don't pay malpractice insurance rates. Patients pay malpractice insurance rates,” Dr. Corlin comments.

Some predict a national reform could save close to $50 billion.

Jamie Court says the problem is not in the courts.

"We don't suddenly have a run of people filing lawsuits. What we have is losses on Wall Street, and when insurance companies lose money on Wall Street, they raise premiums, sometimes absurdly,” says Court.

He says there's a way to reach the same goal without punishing patients. A law in California controls insurance rates for malpractice, as well as auto, homeowner and business. Court says tort reform actually puts patients in danger.

"What it does is to take away accountability for dangerous doctors, for incompetent doctors,” Court says.

For Jacqueline Imbertson, the argument became personal after an intensive care nurse gave her husband the wrong medication.

"He has lost some vision. He has had permanent nerve damage. He has dropped foot now. He lives in excruciating pain 24 hours a day,” Imbertson comments.

As far as Jacqueline knows, no actions were taken.

"Not only was that same person still there in the ICU unit, but had the audacity to come up and pass me by and say, 'Well, I'm still here,’” Imbertson says.

Jacqueline founded Floridians for patient protection to lobby for changes. Starting with a law that after three strikes, bad doctors would have their licenses revoked. She also wants public disclosure of mistakes.

"We have consumer reports for cars, for washing machines. We don't have Consumer Reports for medical care,” Imbertson adds.

As Jacqueline watches her husband fight for his life, her goal is to make sure all patients are in safe hands.

As the debate continues, many suggest looking to Sweden and their no-fault system. When there is a bad outcome, the patient is rewarded a set dollar amount regardless of whether the doctor can be proven at fault.

If you would like a transcript and an address to write to for more information, check out the Medical Breakthroughs Web site on the Internet at www.ivanhoe.com

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