Michael Townes Watson
Broken Healthcare and Justice Systems
A story appeared on September 17 in the Kerville, Texas Daily Times, about a 73-year old man seeking a lawyer to represent him in a wrongful death case about the loss of his wife of fifty years. It is a story that unfortunately has played out the same way for many others over the past four years since Texas passed a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Mr. Richard Miller has been unable to find a lawyer to take his case, not because anyone has determined that there was no malpractice; and not because Mr. Miller or his deceased wife are not good people. The case simply is not one, under the current law of the state of Texas (like the laws of 27 other states that have capped non-economic damages) that justifies the expense involved in taking on such cases.
When juries are limited to an award of $250,000 for the death of a victim like Ms. Miller, then it makes no sense for a lawyer to take on the case, spend possibly over $100,000 for expert witness fees and the thousands of hours of time necessary to prosecute the case. It is not just that a lawyer’s time is expensive, it is also that someone in the shoes of Mr. Miller could spend three to five years of his life in litigation, only to hear from a judge and jury at the end that his wife’s life, in their golden years, was worth nothing more than the cost of sending George W. Bush to prep school.
Ms. Miller went to a local clinic for a “quick and easy” day surgery to relieve pain in one of her legs, but ended up dying after a three-month battle with paralysis and brain dysfunction. The doctors and clinic would not ever tell Mr. Miller what had happened to his wife of fifty-five years. The newspaper article about the case says that there are thousands more like Mr. Miller who have lost loved ones under suspicious circumstances, but have not been able to pursue a measure of justice, just as the insurance companies planned when they inundated the state legislature with their lobbyists in Texas in 2003. I was a medical malpractice lawyer in Texas when that change occurred, and know too many of these personal tragedies. See www.StopMedicalError.com.
The laws protecting patients and their families who are victims of medical error have been emasculated, on the pretext that new laws would lower the cost of healthcare. Yet we are continually seeing articles in the national media about the huge increases in the cost of the healthcare that ends up injuring patients. The annual survey of employer-sponsored plans, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, has charted the upward trend in healthcare costs for years. "There's no tipping point at which health insurance becomes scientifically unaffordable," Kaiser President Drew Altman said at a press conference announcing the survey results. "But we have reached a point where it's become more unaffordable for more employers and workers."
A record number of Americans are without health insurance, according to new U.S. Census Bureau statistics released last week. Some of the trend can be explained by employers who are curtailing coverage or making it too costly for lower income workers to afford, the report said. There are even some reports that, thanks to an increasingly complex coverage system, many U.S. kids who are privately insured are actually having more trouble getting recommended vaccines than kids who have no insurance at all.
The healthcare system is broken and the patients are taking the beating from the fallout. There is no access to justice in many states where damage caps have been put in place, and healthcare is inaccessible to many. It is time to take a critical look at major nationwide reforms to bring safe, affordable care within the grasp of every American. We rank lower than any other major industrialized country in infant mortality and life expectancy, yet our healthcare costs are the highest. We should take examples from others who are doing a better job.