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Lawsuit reform must be part of health care change

Houston Chronicle, October 2, 2009

By Richard W. Weekley

Tort reform works in Texas. News reports that have flooded the media since the national health care debate began have, for the most part, accurately reported the positive impact of medical liability reforms passed here in 2003. What has not been reported is the relentless and ongoing trial-lawyer attack against tort reform in Texas and nationwide.

Before the reforms, 24 Texas counties had no emergency-room physician. Now they do. Another 58 counties have added at least one more emergency-room physician to expand access to care. Twelve counties had no licensed obstetrician. Now they do. And another 26 counties have at least one more obstetrician than they had prior to the reforms. Twelve Texas counties have added at least one orthopedic surgeon, including seven counties that previously had none.


Reforms passed in Texas dramatically increased the total number of doctors in our state — especially high-risk specialists — by lowering medical liability insurance costs by as much as 50 percent and by reducing the threat that doctors will spend more days in court than treating patients. The reforms do not deny a citizen's right to his or her day in court, but they do help to mitigate the threat of meritless lawsuits that drive up the cost of medicine without any demonstrable improvement in quality. When nervous doctors are forced to practice expensive defensive medicine, common sense tells you it will increase medical costs. Ask your own doctor — and get ready for a serious conversation.


The economic benefits to Texas of systemic lawsuit reform go far beyond health care. Common sense reforms like putting an end to judge shopping, reforming joint and several liability, capping punitive damages, reining in abusive class action lawsuits and curbing asbestos and silica lawsuit abuse have helped Texas expand its economy. It is no coincidence that last year our state created more jobs than the other 49 states combined, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


But the positive impact of lawsuit reform has not moved trial lawyers to retire quietly into the night, even in Texas. Instead, they are fighting harder than ever. Trial lawyers spend far more in campaign contributions in Texas than any other business or industry, according to a study of Texas Ethics Commission campaign expenditure reports compiled by Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Nationally, some analysts estimate their campaign contributions total more than a billion dollars a year. To assure there will be more money where that came from, a new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently found that trial lawyers have increased spending on medical liability advertising from $3.8 million in 2004 to $62 million in 2008, a 1,400 percent increase. Those ads are running in Texas as well as states where no reforms have been enacted.


In addition, personal-injury trial lawyers have leveled the most aggressive and sustained attack on lawsuit reform that we have seen in over a decade. They pushed more than 900 bills this year in an attempt to get the Texas Legislature to roll back lawsuit reforms or create new opportunities to sue. Trial lawyers mask the size and source of their millions in political contributions by funneling them through innocuous-sounding front groups like the Texas Values in Action Coalition and Vote Texas. Trial lawyers know that at least 70 percent of Americans believe the country suffers from too many lawsuits. They understand the public would not respond positively if they knew how much money trial lawyers put into campaigns.


President Obama did not include aggressive lawsuit reform in his health care plan priorities and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has made it clear why: “The reason why tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers.”


Congress should not be intimidated. Lawsuit reform must be a key component to any effort to improve the quality and access of health care in America.


Weekley, of Houston, co-founded Texans for Lawsuit Reform in 1994 and currently serves as volunteer chairman and CEO.