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Vancouver, Washington

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Don Jacobs
Don Jacobs
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Four Surgeons to Repay U.S. $2.5 Million

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The public still seems to have a very high regard for doctors. Polls continue to show people trust the profession and their credibility rating is high. In contrast, lawyers have a much lower approval ratings. Both professions have ethical codes which govern behavior. Both exist for the primary purpose of helping people. Maybe one difference is the “person” some lawyers end up helping is a corporation or a government entity, as opposed to a consumer. Yet government and corporate lawyers have a better approval rating than lawyers who work directly for consumers. Lawyers who help people recover damages after an auto accident, medical negligence or because of a dangerous or defective product are constantly vilified. When they lobby the legislature to enact laws that benefit consumers and help clients recover damages it’s always painted as a self serving act.

Case in point is the recent consumer law passed in Washington that helps people who can’t get their insurance company to pay their claims on time. The idea to enact the law came out of Katrina where insurance companies found that if they delay payment long enough, people will go away or take less just to settle. Even if they sued it was still a win for the insurance company. The worst that could happen was they’d just have to pay what was due at a much later date, collecting interest in the interim. And the consumer usually cried uncle, burdened with court costs and lawyer fees trying to get their insurance benefits. Something needed to be done. Lawyers were the ones who brought a law to fix the problem to Olympia. The legislature thought it was a good idea. So did the Governor and the Insurance Commissioner. However, as soon as the law was signed the insurance companies threw almost 13 million dollars into a voter referendum to stop it. Their avalanche of TV ads all focused on attacking lawyers. A visitor just in from outer space watching these ads would think all lawyers are self serving greedy criminals that couldn’t care less about their clients or justice in America. The ads were vicious and mean spirited with little connection to reality or the good things lawyers do for their clients. And who ended up being one of the main spokesmen for the attack ads? Doctors. The Washington State Medical Association. A reading of the law makes it clear it has no negative effect on doctors. In fact, it helps them since it forces insurance companies to pay medical bills on time when someone is in a car accident. So one wonders why doctors and their lobbying group, the Washington State Medical Association, agreed to get in bed with the insurance companies to overturn this important consumer law. That remains a mystery. Fortunately the public saw past the attack ads and voted to keep the law by almost 58%. Yet the public still has high approval ratings of doctors. This is why a December 29th story in the Oregonian newspaper caught me eye. It seems four heart surgeons agreed to pay the U.S. government $2.5 million dollars, or $625,000 a piece. Imaging being financially able to write that check. Why? Medicare fraud. For years the doctors were billing Medicare for being the lead surgeon on a heart surgery. The problem is they also billed Medicare for assisting on another surgery at the same time, a difficult task unless one considers cloning. A Medicare audit showed they were never even present at the other surgery. So they have to presumably repay what they took. What they received by lying to the government and defrauding the public. Yet these people are from the same profession who got up on TV to tell the public the lawyers are greedy and self serving for wanting to pass an important consumer law. It seems perception is often more important than reality.