By Pressley Henningsen
In a Feb. 27 guest column, Dr. Steven Jacobs, a member of the Iowa Medical Society board of directors, discussed medical malpractice reforms. He claimed the current system is costly and inefficient. Attorneys like me who represent victims of medical errors do think our system can be improved.
Our group, the Iowa Association for Justice, offered a legislative compromise two years ago to impose reasonable limits on the number of experts both sides use in a lawsuit. Experts often charge upward of $1,000 per hour, and some defendants hire 5-10 experts to defend a single lawsuit. This is easily the biggest driver of litigation costs for both sides. The IMS rejected this cost-saving measure.
IAJ also agrees that cases drag on far too long, leaving both sides in legal limbo. Civil cases are routinely delayed because of insufficient funding for the courts, not because of flaws in our laws. When judges are understaffed, they put off civil cases to process criminal cases, as they are constitutionally obliged to do. Every year our group fights for adequate court funding. We helped Justice Not Politics produce a video on this topic that you can watch at www.WeSupportIowaCourts.com.
The reforms Jacobs supports would actually make our system more costly and less efficient.
Certificates of merit add a layer to the process for injured patients, adding time and costs. Screening panels create a whole new bureaucratic process that replaces citizen jurors with unelected bureaucrats. Jacobs highlighted Maine for effective screening panels. Not according to the Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court, who called their panels, “a cumbersome process with unpredictable results that cost both the plaintiffs and defendants money and time in a way that was not intended by the Legislature.”
It’s no wonder multiple states have abandoned certificates of merit and screening panels because they were either grossly ineffective or patently unconstitutional.
Over the last decade, medical malpractice lawsuits in Iowa have fallen by half. Liability insurance premiums for Iowa medical providers have also gone down and are among the lowest in the nation. Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine estimates that some 98,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical errors, including way too many Iowans.
If the IMS was interested in improving the process, it would push for more judicial branch funding and common-sense limits on trial testimony. It would commit time and energy to reducing medical errors.
The system already favors medical providers. We shouldn’t make it more difficult for the patients they harm to seek accountability.
Pressley Henningsen, a Cedar Rapids attorney, is president of the Iowa Association for Justice. Comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.