By John Salvo, M.D.
Since its inception four years ago, the Politically Active Physicians Association’s (P.A.P.A.) statewide fight for tort reform has earned the attention of Pennsylvania’s elected officials, print and broadcast media outlets, and the general public.
Over the past year, P.A.P.A. has elevated its battle for tort reform to the federal level. While we are still fighting at the state level, the best hope for physicians is presently in the United States Congress. This is because in July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEALTH Act of 2005 (H.R. 5), which, if passed, promises to end the barrage of lawsuits against physicians and hospitals. That legislation is supported by the White House and has since been sent to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
P.A.P.A. Goes to Washington
Soon after H.R. 5 was sent up to the Senate, P.A.P.A. met with advisors to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter to ask the Senator to schedule hearings on H.R. 5. We were told that the Senator does not feel there are enough votes in support of H.R. 5, as similar legislation failed to pass out of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the last session. Based upon the Senate’s past experiences, we agreed.
However, the landscape since the last hearings has drastically changed. This time, there exists compelling testimony that could sway votes toward tort reform.
In early 2005, an investigation launched by P.A.P.A. found several patients died in Chester County because those patients had no access to neurosurgical care. In 1999, Chester County had six full-time neurosurgeons to service its population of 450,000. At the time of our investigation, only one part-time neurosurgeon was available to the entire county. Chester County reflects a statewide crisis: according to the Pennsylvania Neurosurgical Society, there are only 151 active practicing neurosurgeons throughout the Commonwealth. Our population of 12 million citizens requires at least 185 neurosurgeons.
A study authored by two Harvard educators was released this spring that focused on the consequences of Pennsylvania’s medical liability crisis. That study proves our resident physicians are not staying in Pennsylvania because of the hostile liability climate. Therefore, not only has Pennsylvania lost thousands of physicians due to the crisis – those doctors are not being replaced.
The Chester County deaths, the Harvard study, and other horror stories we’ve received from across the state should convince Senator Specter that hearings on H.R. 5 must be held. We are continuing to work with his office to make that happen.
Road to the White House
Last autumn, P.A.P.A. was invited to the White House to discuss our activities in the battle for tort reform. In January, President Bush traveled to the Midwest to launch his campaign for tort reform, and reiterated his commitment during his State of the Union Address. His resolve remains strong. Only Arlen Specter stands between the will of the House of Representatives and the president’s signature.
During our most recent White House meeting, we were asked by advisers to the president to expand our campaign to other crisis states, which we have since done.
Part of our multi-state effort includes meeting with Senate Judiciary staff from other states. We have spoken to a number of Judiciary legal counselors in efforts to gain leverage in convincing Senator Specter to bring H.R. 5 to hearings. We are also working with Senate Leadership to schedule hearings in other committees. Leadership considers tort reform a priority and expects action on the matter during 2006. P.A.P.A. will play a key role in assisting Leadership as it moves forward.
Health Care Summit to Put Spotlight on Elected Officials
Back at home, P.A.P.A. is putting together a major Health Care Summit that will take place at Drexel University this spring. State and federal officials will be in attendance to discuss Pennsylvania’s health care delivery crisis and to debate solutions.
P.A.P.A.’s efforts have made tort reform a priority issue for this year’s elections. Governor Rendell has already jumped on the topic claiming that Pennsylvania “has turned the corner” in the liability crisis because three major insurers announced they will not raise rates in 2006. Although those insurers might not raise rates this year, there are no measures in place that will prevent future rate hikes. And, there certainly is no reduction of rates or rollbacks of the annual double digit increases that have hit physicians over the past five years. Neither the governor nor the Pennsylvania Legislature as a whole has done anything to effectively move Pennsylvania toward tort reform – and that is an issue that could make or break certain candidacies in both the primary and general election. The Summit will provide a forum for our leaders to clearly define their positions and priorities concerning tort reform.
P.A.P.A. has been Pennsylvania’s leader in the battle for tort reform and will continue to do so during 2006. The battle is not easy and special interest opposition is fierce. But tort reform is a very real possibility and every doctor must dig in their heels and stand firm. This requires calling Senators Specter and Santorum and demanding hearings for H.R. 5. It requires calling state representatives and state senators and demanding tort reform on the state level. It requires writing letters to the editor in city and local newspapers in support of tort reform. It requires each doctor to call the Politically Active Physicians Association at 215-271-9590 to learn how they can help.
This is a fight that our physicians and patients cannot afford to lose.
John Salvo, M.D., is president of the Politically Active Physicians Association.