For years, doctors have blamed greedy lawyers for driving up the price of malpractice insurance.
Now, one tough-minded South Carolina physician has come up with a novel approach to dealing with those attorneys: Refuse to treat them as patients and give them a taste of their own medicine.
J. Chris Hawk, a general surgeon in Charleston, wants the Chicago-based American Medical Association to approve a sweeping resolution endorsing the right of doctors across the nation to refuse care to plaintiffs' attorneys and their families. The controversial resolution, which represents an entirely new front in the doctors' ongoing battle for malpractice reform, will be considered when AMA members gather in Chicago this week for the group's annual meeting.
Hawk says the resolution was designed to "hit 'em with a two-by-four to get their attention. And it's gotten attention. This is aimed at saying, `Look, we've got this crisis, we've been working through the usual channels, but there's been no progress.' We need to do something drastic-and something drastic would be withholding care in nonemergencies for plaintiffs' attorneys and their families.
"We have something they need. Patients across the country are losing access to medical care because high insurance rates are driving doctors out of the profession. Let's let (attorneys) get a taste of the access problem."
The resolution from Hawk, who said his malpractice rates have skyrocketed by about 800% to $42,000 in the past decade, asks the AMA to "notify physicians that, except in emergencies and except as otherwise required by law or other professional regulation, it is not unethical to refuse care to plaintiffs' attorneys and their spouses."
Hawk's draconian solution to the insurance crisis, which reportedly has caused some doctors to leave practice or relocate, is unlikely to win much support among the 550 voting delegates at the AMA meeting. Officials with the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which represents doctors in one of the hardest-hit states in the nation, denounced the resolution, describing its author as a "frustrated individual in South Carolina who would like the AMA to suggest that it's OK to turn trial lawyers away when they request nonemergency care."
The plot has thickened in the ongoing soap opera surrounding the fate of Chicago's historic Cook County Hospital after last month's designation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation of the 90-year-old hospital as one of the nation's 11 most endangered historic places.
The hospital was closed in 2002 when the new, 525-bed John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County opened to replace it. Since then, Chicago preservationists, aided by well-known local figures such as Studs Terkel and former American Public Health Association President Quentin Young, have urged county officials to rescind their original plan for a $30 million demolition and save the famous hospital.
"Cook County Hospital has national significance in three areas," says Royce Yeater, the trust's Midwest director. "Architecturally it has a powerful, prominent facade. It's had a strong impact on the history of medicine in America, was home to the first blood bank and trauma center and has educated thousands of physicians from around the world. It's been called the Ellis Island of Chicago, where anyone who needed healthcare could get it. And finally, we think it's had an effect on popular culture, serving as the backdrop for TV shows like `ER' and films like `The Fugitive.' " Yeater notes that the recommendation by the trust, a private, not-for-profit organization working to preserve the nation's historic places, is not legally binding. "But places listed become a priority for our preservation efforts," he says. Although the Cook County Board of Commissioners has not yet decided whether to demolish the facility or preserve it, the split commission is listening carefully to preliminary studies indicating that the county may need the old hospital space for other healthcare functions or housing. "The need for housing in that neighborhood is acute," he says.
Cook County spokeswoman Caryn Stancik says Cook County Board President John Stroger Jr., for whom the new county hospital was named, has agreed to look at the space needs of the current county hospital and determine whether the old structure could be reused.
That's no doughnut; it's the president!
Last month, Sid Harris was working in the yard when his wife came outside to say the White House was on the phone. Harris, 77, thought it was White House Farms, a market in his home of Youngstown, Ohio, that sells produce and doughnuts. When he picked up the receiver, it was someone from the Bush administration on the other end.
In thanks for his 15 years of volunteering at a local hospital, the White House selected Harris as an outstanding volunteer who would be recognized by Bush at a town hall meeting about healthcare.
When Harris was on hand to greet Air Force One a week later, he says his first words to the president were, "Mr. Bush, do me a favor and please be careful when you ride your bike." Bush, who fell off his bike during a ride in Crawford, Texas, a few days earlier, "was very gracious," Harris says. "Here was the most powerful man in the world honoring a small guy like me. It was really nice."
"Sid is a soldier in the army of compassion," Bush said when he introduced Harris before a speech on expanding healthcare access and insurance coverage. A registered Democrat, Harris has been volunteering as a patient representative at Forum Health in Youngstown since at least 1989. Upon returning to the hospital after his White House honor, Harris received a round of applause.
The White House may never call him again, but if it does, he might not be so tempted to ask if the doughnuts are fresh.