Malpractice Caps: Good Enough for D.C.?
by Jack H. Olender, Esq.
This article was originally published in March 1998 in The Washington Business Journal and The Washington Afro-American.
We in the District of Columbia have more physicians in the various specialties per population than any other place has. We have more hospital beds.
The premiums physicians in the District of Columbia pay for "professional liability" (malpractice) insurance is comparable to or less than that paid in comparable cities such as Baltimore. Nevertheless, within days of this appearing in print, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the "Control Board") is to report to Congress "recommendations on medical malpractice reform for the District." This charge is contained in a Senate committee report on the D.C. budget. It is not in the budget bill itself. The malpractice language in the report inserted at the last minute by a senator also charges the Control Board "to evaluate the issue of medical malpractice."
This Congressional intrusion into the strictly local matter of malpractice lawsuits was lobbied in Congress by prominent attorneys hired by medical and insurance groups such as the "Coalition for Medical Liability Reform." Their water was carried by supporters in Congress, largely from states that have no "caps" restricting awards to malpractice victims. They were able to pass a rider to the D.C. Budget in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate. They were successful in getting a senator to add the malpractice language to the Senate report [not the bill].
The Control Board held a hearing the evening of February 18. Lobbyists and representatives of the insurance and medical industries were heard for the first hour. Consumer groups and patients' lawyers were heard for the second hour. At the end, patients and their families who had been victimized, as well as several members of the general public, were permitted to speak, although two of the three Board members conducting the hearing had already left.
The overwhelming evidence presented at the hearing and in submissions by way of facts, including statistics, showed that 1) malpractice premiums in the District of Columbia are comparable or less than those in comparable cities such as Baltimore which has "caps" and 2) that we have more physicians in the various specialties and more hospital beds than most places. The medical industry is in better shape in D.C. than in most places, including the states that have malpractice "reform" or "caps," and the states which do not (such as North Carolina and Texas where the Congressional experimenters in D.C. malpractice law reside.)
The charge to the D.C. Control Board seems clear: report to Congress that the only change appropriate for malpractice law in D.C. is stronger licensing and disciplinary action to weed out bad doctors who commit much of the malpractice. After all, the members of the Senate and House of Representatives who want malpractice "reform" don't even have it in their states. The majority of states don't. But they think it's good enough for us. Is it?
Washington malpractice lawyer Jack H. Olender was elected Lawyer of the Year by the D.C. Bar Association, and Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Trial Lawyers Association, D.C. He has prosecuted to a verdict or settlement more than ninety cases upwards of a million dollars each.