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Santorum Defends Malpractice

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With the campaign season heating up, we're once again finding ourselves besieged by TV and radio ads by candidates slinging political mud at their opponents.

Here in Pennsylvania, ultra-conservative Republican Senator Rick Santorum has wasted no time filling the airwaves with attacks aimed at his slightly less conservative Democratic challenger Bob Casey.

The Santorum campaign ad that most caught my attention so far this season is one in which Casey is criticized for opposing tort reform.

Of course, Santorum's ad uses very carefully crafted wording. The ad talks about how Santorum stands up for the rights of doctors who are being driven from the state by money-hungry trial lawyers. Move over, Mother Teresa.

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For years, Santorum has campaigned against high awards for plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits, and has called for a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages for pain and suffering. But wait! Santorum forgets to mention that he supported his wife's attempts to win $500,000 in damages in a malpractice case against her chiropractor in 1999. That's twice the limit that Santorum would like to impose on everyone else.

Hypocrisy aside, let's take a look at what the issue is really all about - and what it's NOT about.

It's not about lawyers. It's not about greed. It's about the rights of everyday people who suddenly find themselves victims of preventable medical errors.

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It's about the man who had the wrong leg amputated.

It's about the woman who had an unnecessary mastectomy because of a false cancer diagnosis.

It's about the baby who will have to live with cerebral palsy and mental retardation because of a mismanaged labor and delivery.

And it's about the more than 100,000 patients who are killed each year due to medical negligence or wrongdoing.

Santorum is apparently too busy pandering for votes from the physicians' associations to care about the victims.

And he is apparently too busy pandering for votes to care about the real problems at the core of the issue.

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Santorum blames the issue on the lawyers who represent the victims and win large awards. He blames them for driving up the malpractice insurance premiums that doctors must pay. And he blames them for driving the physicians out of Pennsylvania in search of states with lower liability costs. That's just the kind of political rhetoric that raises emotions and wins votes, but obfuscates the real nature of the problem. And the real nature of the problem is two-fold.

First, the economy is partially to blame. Insurance companies typically invest their capital in the stock market and interest-bearing investments. When the stock market and interest rates are down, insurance companies have a harder time paying malpractice awards. So premiums go up, the doctors complain, and Rick Santorum jumps.

Which leads me to to the second cause of the problem: malpractice itself. By campaigning for tort reform, Santorum is trying to do away with the last resort of average American people against physicians who do them harm. He is, in effect, telling us that "malpractice happens," and that physicians shouldn't have to pay so much for their mistakes. The victims should just get over it.

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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