A Sigh of Relief for Patients

Americans interested in accountability for wrongdoers could breathe a sigh of relief last week, as the U.S. Senate has defeated two bills that would have rewarded the health care and insurance industries at the expense of victims of medical negligence.

Senate Republicans proposed the legislation, which would have put artificial caps on the damages injured parties could recover in court, as well as on the punitive damages health care companies could face. In supporting this legislation, Senate Republicans have betrayed their core principle of accountability for wrongdoers in favor of shielding bad actors from the consequences of their actions.

In a just society, wrongdoers are held to account for their conduct. Common sense tells us that accountability and responsibility go hand in hand. If a person is not held accountable for the results of their conduct they will continue to act irresponsibly because there are no adverse consequences for doing so.

Scriptures also illuminate the link between accountability and responsibility, most famously assuring us that "Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." (Galatians 6:7) The Bible also includes passages that proclaim the virtues of swift justice (Ecclesiastes 8:11), and others that provide a foundation for punitive damages (Leviticus 6:5).

The Republican Party, too, has historically trumpeted the importance of accountability in civic life. From putting a stop to so-called "welfare queens" to locking up criminals, the GOP has previously been quick to point out the importance of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. The medical malpractice legislation pursued by the Senate GOP this week, however, completely ignores the necessity of accountability. Instead, the GOP has bowed to pressure from corporate interests to enact arbitrary limits on the damages injured victims can recover.

The GOP’s defeated legislation was effectively nothing more than a sop to the insurance and medical special interests. The laws, if passed, would have immunized wrongdoers from the full measure of their negligent conduct. For example, the Republican bill sought to cap pain and suffering damages at $250,000 for all victims, without regard to the extent of the injuries. That would mean that whether a victim suffered a broken arm or an excruciating death, their injuries would be capped out at that arbitrary level.

Senate Republicans also sought to put a federal "one size fits all" cap on punitive damages. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that such limits incentivize reckless behavior. Artificial caps on damages tell health care corporations that harm their patients, "It’s ok to put profits over people." And by setting the damage caps so low, these companies are given the opportunity to build their limited liability exposure into their business plans. So much for behavior modification! Punitive damages only work when they have the ability to punish. Arbitrarily capping punitive damages, and in the process allowing billion-dollar health care corporations to willfully harm patients in their pursuit of higher profits, is an egregious lapse of judgment on the part of the GOP, and it contradicts the supposed core principles of the Party of Lincoln, such as accountability, responsibility, and local control.

As I have extensively reported in the past, this effort for medical malpractice reform is not about "frivolous lawsuits." Rather, it is an effort funded largely by the insurance industry to boost profits and shield corporations from the consequences of their conduct. But when we limit accountability for wrongful and negligent behaviors, we risk increasing the prevalence of those behaviors. As Ronald Reagan said, when you subsidize something you get more of it, and when you tax something you get less of it.

Rather than "subsidizing" negligent conduct, the Senate GOP should seek to "tax" it. They should choose to stand on principle, rather than partisan alliances.