Tort reform sign at a Tea Party rally against health care reform. (photo: Pittsford Patriot via Flickr)

One of the favorite choices of the wingnuts for actual legislation has always been ‘tort reform’. It was their hue and cry to get out of making health care productive for most citizens, even though it is not an area subject to federal legislation.

In Texas where there has been extensive tort reform, conditions have been created that are ideal for incompetence and outright fraud. One area that has seen a true disaster is in emergency room care. Under conditions that may include extreme stress, mistakes can occur but the patient maimed for life cannot count on any compensation for those mistakes.

Since the new law went into effect, doctors’ malpractice insurance rates have fallen by nearly 30 percent statewide, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. And 82 Texas counties have seen a net gain in emergency physicians, including 26 counties that previously had none, says Jon Opelt, executive director of the pro-tort-reform Texas Alliance for Patient Access. “It has really enhanced the number of high-demand specialists — neurosurgeons, obstetricians, anesthesiologists — in parts of Texas where there weren’t any,” says Rocky Wilcox, general counsel for the Texas Medical Association.

But medical malpractice attorneys say these developments have come at the expense of Texas patients. Texans expect to receive extraordinary care in an emergency room, the attorneys say. Instead, state courts have ruled that a “lower standard of care” is acceptable for doctors practicing in ERs. They argue the “willful and wanton” rule means emergency room care in Texas is some of the most dangerous in the country, because no one can be held accountable for botched diagnoses or flat-out wrong care.

I happen to live in a small town not too far from Dallas for doctors and others to commute reasonably. Partly for that reason, our hospital is known to be something of a reservoir of physicians that didn’t make it in the big city. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally we know that this hospital ER is really a very last resort. In case of severe injuries, it is generally requested that the patient be transported to a better, that is, uh, better equipped medical facility.

If you are not able to work and pay your bills, face it, knowing you will get no compensation for being rendered disabled is the worst of all possible worlds. Its name is tort reform. Being the ultimate resort of doctors most worried about malpractice claims isn’t the state you want to be in, either.

There are other areas in which tort reform is a full employment plan for the worst practitioners. When I drive through rush hour traffic, I don’t usually think about it to avoid panic. If I am hit by another driver, even under egregious circumstances, damages are not really dependable for the victim. Let’s see, in a state that has provided refuge for medically incompetent doctors, what do you think are the qualifications for truck drivers and delivery personnel. Not a good prospect when you hit the road, is it? I’d stay out of any construction sites, too, since just taking away barriers to your dangerous zones isn’t going to make the city worry. They’ve got tort reform. Yeehaw.

We’re not all of us ‘slip and fall’ artists, the perpetual and/or professional victims of injury by encounter with hazards that happen to be insured by a business entity. We all know about fraud by that means, but in the tort reform state an innocent fall on or off of a hazardous structure may cost you your total means of support. If you slip on my front stairs, my insurance company has its own lawyers all set to protect their coffers, not you. Good luck in ER, too. Tort reform is hazardous to your health in many, many ways.

Of course, under present legal constructions, if you are injured by some particularly crazy behavior on the part of another “party”, to collect damages you have to prove “intent”. That other “party” may have driven out in front of you and stopped suddenly, but can you show that the “party” intended to wrack up his own car to collect on the insurance?

The most dangerous elements love tort reform. When the wingnuts insist on its being a great way to save your money, steer clear. They are hazardous to your health and your retirement planning.