When it comes to “shake your head in disgust” medical malpractice stories this week, we thought the one about ex-New York State Senator Pedro Espada Jr., convicted Monday of stealing more than $450,000 from his Bronx clinic to fund his cushy lifestyle, couldn’t be beat. Turns out not only did he steal money, but he “didn’t pay for medical malpractice insurance for more than a month, keeping doctors in the dark as they continued to see patients.”
But then we read about what’s happening in Michigan, where one doctor committed such egregious malpractice against so many patients - children, no less - that there’s a class action lawsuit against him. When was the last time you heard of that happening?
But it gets even worse. The state legislature is responding to this crisis by considering legislation that would not only limit compensation to these patients, but in some cases could provide complete immunity to grossly negligent doctors like this guy.
First by way of background, Michigan is already is suffering a serious patient safety crisis, no doubt due in large part to a number of severe so-called “tort reforms” already on the books, which have been weakening the accountability of incompetent doctors and unsafe hospitals since the 1980s. These laws include “caps” on damages. (See some others in Exhibit C in this report.)
So comes along Dearborn-based neurologist, Dr. Yasser Awaad. What he did was so horrible that People Magazine wrote about it in one of those “medical nightmare” features, so you know its bad:
In February 2006, Shana Reese was a bubbly cheerleader who loved shopping, going to movies and roller-skating with friends. The only wrinkle in her otherwise carefree life was the headaches that had plagued her for nearly a year. So her physician referred her to Dr. Yasser Awaad, a pediatric neurologist in Detroit. After two EEGs, she says, he diagnosed her with epilepsy and told her she couldn't drive, shouldn't go outside and had to quit cheerleading. Worst of all, the anti-seizure medicines he prescribed made her so tired that she became a virtual hermit, shuttered in her bedroom, sleeping away her high school years. "I was on the honor roll," says Shana, now 19, of Taylor, Mich. "But after I started these medications, I was barely passing."
Then came the real shock-after nearly a year of debilitating side effects from the medications, Shana went to other doctors (Awaad closed down his operation in 2007), and one of them explained that her headaches were caused by allergies, not epilepsy. Now she believes Awaad's diagnosis and treatment were all a sham. And she's not alone. She and 254 other former patients have sued Awaad for allegedly misdiagnosing them with epilepsy in order to reap huge insurance payouts for himself and Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center in Dearborne, Mich. (The hospital is also named in the lawsuit.) "A lot of these kids were put in special ed," says Brian Benner, the plaintiffs' attorney, who is seeking damages for emotional and physical distress as well as reimbursement for his clients' medical bills.
But now we learn that legislation has been introduced in Michigan that could “allow other doctors who commit malpractice to walk away with no consequences.” Said one mother, “I’m worried if this bill passes my son will not have any recourse.” She should be worried:
"The bills would do a lot of things," said Southfield attorney Marc Lipton of Senate Bills 1115-1118. "But at their core, they would raise taxes on the state taxpayers or bust the Medicaid budget, or both. They essentially immunize medical malpractice."
They said that if the bills pass, for example, their case against Dr. Yasser Awaad and Oakwood Healthcare System will unravel. That would leave as many as 2,000 plaintiffs unable to sue the doctor they say was motivated by an incentive contract and greed to misdiagnose them with epilepsy.
They are particularly concerned with SB 1116, which would protect a doctor who says that his or her conduct was an exercise of professional judgment and in the best interest of the patient, which they say that Awaad argued all along.
Not only that, the state itself is doing barely anything about Dr. Awaad. In January, the state of Michigan signed an agreement with Dr. Awaad “that allows him to keep his license. He'll be on probation for at least one year.” Oh, and he’s paying a whopping $10,000 penalty and will have his future work reviewed by another doctor. So Dr. Awaad isn't going anywhere. What’s more, reports the Associated Press, “The hospital continues to back Awaad, although it agreed in 2009 to pay $309,140 to Michigan's Medicaid program, which had paid for some of the doctor's treatments.” So the hospital apparantly hasn't learned a thing, either. Immunity for unsafe health care providers is about the worst thing the state could do now.
We thought this story couldn't get more mind-boggling until we saw the quote in Michigan Lawyers Weekly by Darren McKinney, spokesman for the DC-based American Tort Reform Association, about this legislation, which would protect doctors like Dr. Awaad and strip away rights of the potentially thousands of children who were medical abused by him. He says, “People are launching multimillion-dollar lawsuits because their alcoholic, chain-smoking, fat relative died in an emergency room … All physicians can do is make the best judgment calls possible. And many people make terrible decisions for their own health.”
How do you beat a quote like that?