by Jack Faris, President & CEO of NFIB

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2000 -- "Who wants to be a millionaire trial lawyer?" No, it's not the latest TV game show. It's the trial lawyers' latest lawsuit scam, and it's aimed at a tempting new target - the nation's trillion-dollar health care industry. Many of these trial lawyers are still counting their million-dollar fees from successful lawsuits against other deep-pocket industries. But with Congress considering a "Patients' Bill of Rights" that includes new ways to sue health plans and also employers, these lawyers have found time to file at least 35 class-action lawsuits against some of America's largest health plans in just the last year. And Congress hasn't even passed a final bill.

The litigation is part of a coordinated plan of attack, launched by a group of trial lawyers last fall, to pressure health care insurers. Their tactics range from legal seminars on how to sue health plans to an unprecedented campaign of intimidation in the investment community.

It's been reported that trial lawyers have been peddling the threat of lawsuits against health plans to Wall Street investors, which, in turn, has caused the stock value of these companies to plummet. As a Washington Post editorial put it recently: "This isn't law. It's an extortion racket." If these lawyers are eagerly filing class-action lawsuits based on highly questionable legal theories (one case has already been thrown out by a Federal court), imagine what will happen if Congress gives them real ammunition.

Congress needs to fully grasp what expanded lawsuits will mean for the millions of Americans who depend upon their employers for their health care coverage. A raft of legal studies confirms that under the Dingell-Norwood bill passed by the House, trial lawyers could not only sue health plans but also the employers who sponsor them.

That means every time an employee disagrees with their health plan over coverage decisions, employers could find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Even a frivolous lawsuit, which some of these would certainly be, has the potential to put a company out of business. What rational employer is going to continue to put himself or herself in a high risk situation for doing nothing more than voluntarily providing their employees with health care coverage? The answer is that many will stop offering health insurance to their workers altogether, increasing the already growing number of uninsured Americans today.

The business consulting firm Hewitt Associates found expanding health care liability would force 36 percent of large employers - one out of every three - to drop coverage for their employees.

The consequences would be catastrophic for millions of Americans and their families who depend on employers for health care coverage.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean, himself a Democrat and a physician, specifically warned his state legislature against allowing more lawsuits against HMO's and employers: "Opening insurance companies and employers to lawsuits will only drive the price of insurance higher." He's right. Studies have shown that when the cost of health insurance goes up, the number of uninsured does, too. The growing number of Americans without health care is already approaching crisis proportions thanks to steadily rising health care costs. One recent study, conducted by the benefits consulting firm, Mercer, Inc., found that businesses face an expected 7.5% increase in health care costs this year after absorbing similar increases over the past two years.

Smaller businesses, with under 50 employees, were socked with a nearly 14% increase in health insurance costs last year alone. Yet, Congress is close to passing a bill that will only add to higher costs and more uninsured at a time when one out of every six Americans has no health insurance at all. If Congress allows new lawsuits as part of its "Patients' Bill of Rights," trial lawyers, whose bank accounts are already bulging from earlier shakedowns, have nothing to lose and millions more to gain.

Meanwhile, millions of working people risk losing the health care coverage they have come to depend upon, and America will lose another round in its battle to ensure that every man, woman and child in this country has access to affordable, quality health care.

When it comes to reforming health care, let's hope expanded lawsuits aren't the final answer. Otherwise, the "Patients' Bill of Rights" will become the "Lawyers' Right to Bill."

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CONTACT: Jean Card, NFIB Special Assistant to the President at 202.314.2018