Lawyers: The death of health care reform

This column is about the health-care debate, but first we must take a little diversionary walk — because the weather is still fine and a nice walk is a healthy activity — down to our lawyer’s office.

As it happens, the lawyer occupies a special place of disrepute in the chronicle of unloved professions. Why, lawyers enjoy even less social standing than other public scoundrels such as journalists.

Of course, lawyers have always been an unloved lot. More than four centuries ago, William Shakespeare gave a rebellious character named Dick the Butcher the famous line: "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers."

That is not a good idea in any age. In the first place, if you botch the job, you are going to be sued mercilessly. In the second place, lawyers are often individually very nice people. You can’t blame them for what they do — they have little rug-rat lawyers at home whom they have to feed.

Ever the contrarian, I do count a few lawyers as personal friends and can only admire a profession that organizes itself into bar associations. Journalists have been propping up bars for years and this never once occurred to them.

The main problem with lawyers is that they are too numerous to love. A person who seeks justice from a large corporation, for example, might as well go hit a wasp’s nest with a stick. Great swarms of attorneys will come buzzing out with writs and motions to spoil the day. Why, if you shook the typical American tree, several lawyers would fall out and sue you.

No wonder the average person thinks lawyers are the sort of sneaky people who speak Latin behind your back.

Medical doctors are also afflicted by lawyers and, yes, we are finally done with our walk and are back to the subject of health care. Feel free now to take off your sneakers.

A major reason why other countries manage to have a universal health-care system for much cheaper than our best-health-care-in-the-world-only-for-those-who-can-afford-it system is that their doctors do not have to pay huge insurance premiums because the lawyers are sitting up in trees like so many vultures ready to feed on their mistakes.

The average doctor doesn’t need this. He or she just wants to practice medicine the joyful, old-fashioned way — by asking patients to take off their clothes in order to have a quiet laugh and then writing a scrip in Old Norse to befuddle the pharmacist.

Yet like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, tort reform — the one thing that could cut medical costs substantially — is barely mentioned in the health-care debate.

Unfortunately, the reason for this is obvious. While lawyers contribute to both parties, Democrats just love trial lawyers and they return the infatuation. It is a great American love story but we the people are the ones who end up being ravished.

We are the ones who end up sitting in outpatient corridors with those gowns naturally air-conditioned at the back getting all sorts of tests that oftentimes are meant as much to keep the doctor out of the courtroom as the patient out of the hospital bed.

It is true that extra tests do sometimes pick up serious conditions that would otherwise be missed, but worrywart patients should be made to pay for these themselves.

It is also obvious that people who are really done a wrong as a result of medical malpractice — perhaps involving one of those prescriptions written in Old Norse — should be justly compensated. However, justly compensated shouldn’t mean being enriched by a judicial lottery system that increases medical costs every time the lawyers spin the wheel.

Sure, I like a good tort as much as the next person but these torts are torturing us and need to be reformed. If it miraculously should happen, I would not relish the prospect of out-of-work lawyers filling the streets with "Will File Caveats for Food" signs. Still, they could always get other jobs — for example, they could invent a medical robe that actually covers a patient’s backside.

President Obama can talk all he wants about hope and change but his health-care plan will fly as well as a concrete balloon without tort reform.

Perhaps the Republicans could do something useful for once and insist upon it — or are they similarly co-opted? And what about the latter-day Dick the Butcher, not to be confused with Dick the Torturer, who did shoot and wound a lawyer but only by accident.

I think I saw Dick the Butcher the other day at one of those town hall meetings. Instead of going on about socialism, he should be yelling: "The first thing we do, let’s kill the lawyers’ gravy train."

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)