When it comes to healthcare, and especially medical liability reform, the newly minted Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. John Edwards of North Caro-lina, brings bonuses and baggage to the Kerry campaign, analysts and aides said last week.
After Kerry made it official that Edwards was his choice for the ticket, it wasn't long before critics voiced their concerns. A good deal of the barbs centered on Edwards' background as a trial lawyer.
"The dichotomy is that the Democrats have been pro-choice and for women's advocacy issues, but the other side of the coin is that most are trial attorneys and are a thorn for getting any kind of meaningful tort reform passed," said Douglas Kirkpatrick, vice president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a practicing physician in Denver.
Arguing that frivolous lawsuits and outlandish jury awards are driving up malpractice insurance and even threatening access to care, hospital and physician lobbies support medical liability reform that includes capping noneconomic damages in malpractice cases. At least three times the House has passed reform bills that would limit noneconomic damages to $250,000, but the Senate has rejected such measures when they've come up for a vote.
Some Washington observers said Edwards' ties to trial lawyers would imperil reform efforts, but others said Edwards can use those ties to his advantage as a would-be Kerry administration tackles the issue.
"This business of demonizing the trial lawyers is counterproductive for the medical profession," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a physician, told Modern Healthcare last week. How to award noneconomic damages to medical malpractice victims, he said, "can be worked out if people are willing to sit down and have a rational discussion," something McDermott said would happen more easily in a Kerry administration than in a Bush administration.
Republican leaders had the opposite reaction. "We're very concerned with what Sens. Kerry and Edwards' views mean for patients' access to quality healthcare," said Nick Smith, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "They have both been strong opponents to common-sense, comprehensive medical liability reform in the Senate and their trial-lawyer friendly views would likely end any chance of reform."
A Kerry campaign spokeswoman said Edwards has a strong record on healthcare and, like Kerry, favors a plan to reduce frivolous suits but not limit damage awards. Under the Kerry healthcare plan, medical liability reform would entail incentives to reduce costly litigation, such as a "three strikes and you're out" policy for lawyers who file bogus suits.
When he was campaigning for the presidential nomination, Edwards said his healthcare platform would be to cover every child and target other help to small businesses, the unemployed and adults under age 25 and between ages 55 and 64. His plan was estimated to cost $600 billion over 10 years and did not include capping noneconomic damages in malpractice suits.
"There is no evidence in states that have tried (caps) that they do anything to reduce malpractice premiums or overall healthcare costs," said Sarah Bianchi, Kerry's domestic policy director.
Not so, according to Kirkpatrick, the obstetrician in Colorado, where noneconomic damages are capped at $250,000 and overall damages at $1 million. Annual malpractice premiums in Colorado averaged $75,000 in 1988, when the limits went into effect, and now hover around $30,000, Kirkpatrick said.
Kerry has said that if elected he will introduce his 10-year, $895 billion healthcare reform plan as his first piece of legislation.