Lawsuits targeting healthcare system hit patients hardest

David Knowles Dec. 5, 2004, 2:00am

You can’t open your local newspaper these days without being bombarded with advertising from personal injury lawyers looking to cash in with lawsuits against the makers of Vioxx. These lawsuits are an unfortunate reminder of the giant target painted on our healthcare system.

Today, it’s Vioxx, but the sad truth is that our entire healthcare system is under assault, and it costs each and every one of us. First it was doctors, then makers of life-saving medical equipment and pharmaceutical companies, and now charity hospitals have found themselves in the line of fire.

We’re all aware of the doctor exodus, but this is a much bigger problem than doctors leaving, affecting patient care and the future of healthcare in America.

Why should we care? Because while a few personal injury lawyers are cashing in on these lawsuits, patients are paying the price with high costs, less innovation and reduced access to care.

Every year in this country, 7.5 million lives are either saved by or improved through implantable medical devices or products such as pacemakers or stents. However, thanks to the ever-growing fear of lawsuits, manufacturers have limited distribution or have stopped production altogether.

Seventy-five percent of suppliers of these biomaterials that are used to make implantable devices have banned sales to our nation’s manufacturers. Numerous producers of these devices chose to remain overseas rather than risk getting dragged into our courts, leaving many patients with fewer options for care.

Forty lawsuits against not-for-profit hospitals that provided $23 million in free health care services in 2003 are tapping the same funds that would be used to provide more free care to needy and uninsured patients. Instead, millions will be spent defending the hospitals in court.

Another poignant illustration of how the lawsuit-happy environment is ultimately hurting patients is today’s shortage of flu vaccine. In 1985, there were six injectable flu vaccine manufacturers licensed by the FDA. Just 10 years ago, there were five.

Today, there are only two. The threat of litigation played a part in companies deciding to abandon the manufacture of vaccines.

The bigger question goes to the core of the problem. Are all of these lawsuits simply a product of bad healthcare? Not likely. Our healthcare system is widely acknowledged as the best in the world. A few personal injury lawyers know there is money to be made suing the healthcare industry, regardless of the cost to patients and the community as a whole.

As doctors continue to leave - nearing 200 now in the Southern Illinois region – many wonder how bad this healthcare liability crisis will be allowed to get before our political leaders will make a discernable decision between healthcare for the public good versus profits for a few wealthy campaign contributors. Will Chicago have to suffer comparable losses to get our legislature and governor to act?

Pundits on both sides of the political aisle acknowledge the voters of Southern Illinois – a geographical third of the state - made a strong statement for reform this last election when they voted against a state supreme court candidate with close ties to the personal injury bar. Many single out the medical liability crisis as the deciding factor.

When doctors leave or manufacturers stop producing life-saving equipment or medicines, all patients suffer, regardless of their political affiliation. The voters of Southern Illinois understand. As we approach a new year and a new legislative session, perhaps this understanding will manifest itself in meaningful reform in our state.

Tens of thousands of patients have had to find a new doctor, and time is running out on thousands of others. Medical professionals warn we are approaching a point of no return when it comes to the destruction of our healthcare system. Our leaders must act before it’s too late.

Steve Schoeffel is the Executive Director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW). I-LAW is a grassroots watchdog group of concerned citizens, community leaders, small business people, and non-profit organizations dedicated to educating the public about the widespread costs of lawsuit abuse. You can learn more by calling toll-free (866) 866-ILAW or visiting For more information about how lawsuits are damaging our healthcare system, visit

More News