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Health Summit 2010

Sen. Dick Durbin on medical malpractice reform at White House health summit

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CQ Transcriptions
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 5:12 PM

DURBIN: Mr. President, I've been biding my time throughout this entire meeting. I thank you for inviting us on the issue of medical malpractice. Before I was elected to Congress, I worked in a courtroom. For years, I defended doctors and hospitals, and for years I sued them on behalf of people who were victims of medical malpractice. So I've sat at both tables in a courtroom. At least many years ago, I think I kind of understood this area of the law better than some.

But I listen time and again as our friends on the other side when they're asked what are the most important things you can do when it comes to our health care system in America. The first thing they say is medical malpractice. It's the first thing they say. Today, it was the first thing that was said.

The point that's been made by the president is if we do believe the Congressional Budget Office, when Orrin Hatch asked them how much will we save if we implement the Republican plan on medical malpractice from the House, they said $54 billion over 10 years; $5.4 billion a year is a lot of money, except in the context of the $2.5 trillion bill that we pay each year for health care. It represents one-fifth of 1 percent of the amount of money we spend each year on health care.

The Congressional Budget Office said something else. They said and as you lose accountability for what the doctors and hospitals are doing, more people will die -- 4,800 a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office's reference to this study.

Now, the Institute of Medicine tells us 98,000 people a year die in America because of medical malpractice. I think there are things that we have put in this bill to change that. Most of you have heard of this Dr. Gawande. We've read him. I've talked to him on the phone. His "Checklist Manifesto" is a very basic approach to reducing medical errors, which is what we should be focused on.

And I want to say, Mr. President, I think what you and the secretary have done is the right thing -- incentivizing states to find innovative ways to reduce medical errors and reduce those lawsuits that should not be filed.

But let me tell you what, limiting the recovery for pain and suffering for someone who is entitled -- entitled because they're innocent victims -- to be paid isn't eliminating junk lawsuits. I will tell you that as far as the president is concerned, in his neighborhood there is a great hospital, which I will not name, and at this hospital a woman went in for a simple removal of a mole from her face. And under general anesthesia, the oxygen caught fire, burning her face. She went through repeated surgeries, scars and deformity. Her life will never be the same. And you are saying that this innocent woman is only entitled to $250,000 in pain and suffering.

I don't think it's fair. Our jury system makes that decision, and the states, 30 of them have made a decision on what to do. If you were asked a basic question: Over the last 20 years, has the number of paid malpractice claims in America doubled or been cut in half? If you listen to most people here, you'd say it must have doubled. No. According to the Kaiser Foundation, they've been cut in half.

Oh, but how much -- how about the money that's being paid for these malpractice claims? Clearly, that's gone through the roof. No. Between 2003 and 2008, the total amount paid for malpractice claims in America was cut in half from $8 billion to $4 billion.

This is an important issue. I don't dispute it and I think we have treated it as an important issue. But to make it the overriding issue is to, I think, really trivialize some of the other things that should be part of this conversation.

I've been asked to speak about deficit reduction. I will not, other than to say one general thing. When I hear my friend John Boehner say that we have the best health care in the world, I don't dispute it for a moment. If I were sick, this is the country I want to be in, with these doctors, these hospitals, and these medical professionals.

Step back for a second and look at who we are in this room. As was said many years ago, the law in its majestic equality forbids both the wealthy and the poor from sleeping under bridges. When it comes to the wealthy in health care per capita, we're the wealthiest people in America. the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program administered by the federal government, setting minimum standards for the health insurance that we enjoy as individuals and want for our families, is all we're asking for in this bill for families across America.

If you think it's a socialist plot and it's wrong, for goodness sakes drop out of the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program. But if you think it's good enough for your family, shouldn't our health insurance be good enough for the rest of America? That's what it gets down to. Why have this double standard?

Tom Harkin is right. Why do we continue to discriminate against people when we know that each one of us is only one accident or one diagnosis away from being one of those unfortunate few who can't afford or can't find health insurance.


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