The press release followed on the heels of a speech in Scranton, PA, where the President asserted that "the problem of those unnecessary [health care] costs don't start in the waiting room, or the operating room, they're in the courtroom."
He went on to say that doctors were abandoning Pennsylvania because of the high cost of medical insurance, which he blamed on unnecessary law suits: "[D]octors say, well, gosh, I can't afford it here in Pennsylvania, I'm moving. I'll just take my heart and my skills to another community where I can afford it."
Both of these assertions, which came about as part of "Whack John Edwards Day" according to Mother Jones, are without merit. They are part of a carefully crafted series of messages (see George Lakoff, Moral Politics). Mother Jones reports that the "term 'lawsuit abuse' was coined in the early 1990s by Jan van Lohuizan, a Washington pollster who later helped plan Bush's 2000 presidential campaign."
First: is there an "explosion" of tort lawsuits in the US? According to a publication from the National Center for State Courts (Tort Filings in 30 General Jurisdiction Courts, 1991-2000), overall filings declined from 595,034 to 537,106 -- a 9.7% decrease. Pennsylvania filings have dropped dramatically in this century.
Second: are the awards unreasonable? The Center for Justice and Democracy reports: "The average claims payout by medical malpractice insurance companies is about $30,000 per claim and has been virtually unchanged for the last decade, according to a 2001 study by the Consumer Federation of America of actual claims paid. In fact, total insurance payouts to all claimants have hovered between $2.5 billion and $4 billion per year. By comparison, Americans spend twice that much about $8 billion on dog food each year."
Third: were Pennsylvania's doctors leaving the state in droves? Not according to testimony in Harrisburg in April of 2004, reported in the Allentown Morning Call. Daniel Glunk, chairman of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, acknowledged that they lack "statistical evidence" to support a three-year claim that doctors are leaving Pennsylvania in droves. In his testimony, Glunk noted that "[s]ome data sources show an 800-doctor gain. The problem is no one has definitive numbers and that there is conflicting data."
A reasonable question came from Rep. Thomas Tangretti: "How can the medical society, if you can't agree on the numbers, continue to tout that doctors are leaving?''
According to FEC data, Glunk has contributed $250.00 to Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) re-election campaign and $650.00 to the PMS's federal PAC. The PAC has received contributions from 523 individuals but has not yet filed any FEC information regarding candidates supported.
New Book Explores Legal Legends
"We call these 'tort tales' or 'pop torts,' " University of Washington Professor Michael McCann said. Along with University of Puget Sound's William Haltom, he has written a book, Distorting the Law: Politics, Media and the Litigation Crisis, which analyzes press coverage of tort cases over the past two decades. They reviewed stories in The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
"Jurors decided the case on the facts that they heard," Haltom said, "but most Americans never hear those facts." The two believe that press coverage of law suits follows the "tort tale" that has been spun by politicians and the insurance industry.
- Center for Justice and Democracy
- Doctors can't prove thinning ranks - 23 April 2004
- UW Press Release
- Mother Jones (Sept-Oct 2004)
- National Center for State Courts (pdf)
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court Announces Favorable Trends from Preliminary Data
- Tangretti challenges Pa. Medical Society chairman on scare tactics - 23 April 2004
- White House - 16 Jan 2003, Speech
- White House - 16 Jan 2003, Press Release