Healthcare providers sometimes save lives; lawyers can complicate them.
It's ironic that hospital and physician fees often are capped by government decree, yet lawyers rarely are limited in the amount of money they can collect from clients. The tobacco "settlement" cases and exorbitant legal fees offer the latest chapter in this twisted tale of our times.
Irony notwithstanding, it's time for congressional Republicans to put up or shut up on such populist health issues as patient protection and Medicare reform. Failure to mount a strategy to get something done will let Democrats gain a pivotal advantage in next year's elections.
Indications are that some sort of health plan accountability will be included in patient-protection legislation. Provider groups should support managed-care liability, but only as a final recourse. And they should fight to include caps on legal fees for lawyers involved in HMO malpractice lawsuits.
Already, some 15 million Californians are getting the right to sue their insurers for physical or financial damages. A bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis will allow patients to have independent physicians review and overturn HMO decisions modifying, delaying or denying treatment recommended by patients' physicians.
In Washington, public and political pressure is strong enough to prompt Congress to pass a patients' bill of rights that is enforceable and meaningful. It must deal with emergency treatment, the right to an external evaluation and the right to prompt and independent mediation or arbitration.
A toothless bill that fails to hold insurers accountable for egregious behavior is no longer acceptable. As the crafting continues, may we suggest:
* Limiting liability when patients sue health plans for injuries or deaths that result from denial of covered benefits. Employers who subsidize health coverage for their workers should be exempt from such suits.
* Requiring enrollees to verify their injuries and to allow an external medical panel to review the evidence before a suit can be filed.
* Capping legal fees in these liability suits at no more than 10% of the award, with no charges exceeding $100,000.
Managed-care plans should be able to live with such regulation. And trial lawyers, who are so keenly interested in protecting patients and improving the quality of managed care, surely can accept a compromise.