Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, May 23, 2008

From the archives



This item was first posted on July 24, 2005

By David Baker

You would think that the immense financial and emotional cost of the unnecessary deaths of as many as 98,000 people a year in this country would be a tragedy for everyone involved, and for society as a whole. But a closer look reveals that in fact for many people and organizations, it is actually a benefit, and for some, even a source of significant income.

First, there are the hospitals and nursing homes where the errors take place. The people running these institutions claim to be trying to reduce the number of patients who are killed or injured. But, as a 2005 follow up study by the Institutes of Medicine found, the number of avoidable patient deaths has remained almost unchanged since 2000, when the Institute’s first study was released.

So while the quotes in newspaper stories sound good, the reality is that very little is being done to end the carnage. Evidently, it’s cheaper to hire teams of lawyers to beat off anyone who files a claim than it is to stop the cause of the claims in the first place.

And in some cases, a medical facility can actually reap a financial benefit from an alleged mistake. In Lisa’s case, Samaritan Hospital received about $73,000 for treating her for the ultimately fatal injuries she received while in the hospital’s care. That’s $73,000 the hospital would not have received if Lisa had gone home three weeks earlier, as she was expecting to do the day she was found almost dead in her hospital bed.

Next to gain are the insurance companies that provide coverage for medical malpractice. As is reported elsewhere on this page, many of these companies are making huge profits on the underwriting of malpractice insurance. Some of them are paying out as little as 10 cents for each dollar they collect in premiums. That’s even as they demand limits on malpractice lawsuits. If the number of medical errors had gone down significantly since 2000, these companies would not have been able to collect the 120 percent increase in average premiums that they demanded during that time, even as the amount they paid out in claims rose a mere 5.7 percent.

Then there are the state politicians who accept huge amounts of money from the medical community, and in return, keep laws regulating hospitals so weak that they are a joke. For example, as is noted on this page, the most a medical facility can be fined for a violation is a mere $2,000, even if the violation results in a death. That amount was last changed 15 years ago and attempts to get the Legislature to increase it have gone nowhere.

These people know who they really represent. And it’s not a helpless patient dying in her hospital bed.

Also winners are the managements of some newspapers, which have willingly abandoned their duty to inform the public, instead accepting a constant stream of revenue from medical facilities while routinely suppressing stories about lawsuits that allege medical negligence against those facilities.

And then there are the really big winners: The law firms that defend medical providers accused of causing a death or injury. Their job, at upwards of $275 an hour, is to do everything they can to cause delay, and to drive up the cost of bringing a lawsuit. With the immensely rich insurance companies paying the bill, they try to outspend and wear down a plaintiff and obstruct access to the facts, while at the same time adding to the enormous pain caused by the original error.

And all this, of course, is authorized by the managements of the insured medical facilities.

The same medical facilities that spend a fortune telling everyone how competent and caring they are.