Edwards fouls his own nest

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who made his fortune as a trial lawyer, says attorneys should have to show their medical malpractice cases have merit before filing them.

He also said attorneys with a history of frivolous suits should be barred from filing new cases.

Edwards’ proposal is similar to “certificates of merit” laws that have been adopted in several states in recent years. Those laws usually require that an independent doctor assert the validity of a malpractice case before it is filed.

Edwards also said that while reducing malpractice lawsuits, as many have advocated, is a good idea, it won’t significantly affect health care costs.

“I do want to push back some on what I think is mostly insurance company-driven hysteria because I think the reality is that the cost associated with legal cases is well under 1 percent of our legal system,” the former North Carolina senator said.

He spoke Monday at a health care forum organized by Families USA and the Federation of American Hospitals and hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Before a lawyer files a malpractice lawsuit, he ought to be required to have two experts certify that the case is both meritorious and serious, Edwards said.

If the lawyer fails to get this certification, the lawyer — not the patient — should bear the costs involved in preparing the case, Edwards said. If a lawyer fails to obtain certification three times, he should be prohibited from filing future malpractice cases, the candidate said.

“I think that the bulk of the problem is created when cases are filed in the legal system that should never be filed, and the results are years of litigation and costs that are incurred by the health care provider that should not have been incurred,” Edwards said. “A lot of that responsibility goes to the lawyers.”

Edwards has received about $7 million, or one third of his total fundraising, from donors who identify themselves as attorneys or lawyers.

Bill Schulz, a spokesman for the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers, said that states have generally adopted certificate-of-merit laws as a compromise between the legal and medical communities.

For trial lawyers, “generally speaking it’s been a kind of nothingburger,” Schulz said. He noted that nationally the number of malpractice settlements and verdicts has declined slightly, from 14,408 in 2002 to 13,096 in 2005.

The forum was the first in a series designed to give top tier presidential candidates an opportunity to detail their health care views.

Edwards also unveiled a strategy at the forum for combatting HIV/AIDS that includes age-appropriate sex education, encouragement of needle exchange programs for drug addicts and expansion of Medicaid to cover HIV-positive people before they reach later stage disabilities and AIDS.

He called for spending $50 billion over five years on HIV/AIDS treatment and using World Health Organization standards, rather than U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, to speed the availability of new AIDS drugs.

“I do believe it (HIV/AIDS) is a crisis in America; obviously it’s a crisis in the world,” Edwards said.