Opinion

No on I-330, No on I-336, No on I-912

Whom do you distrust more: the lawyers eating $50 steaks at that downtown grill, or the doctors and insurance company fat-cats double parking their Mercedes at the country club?

The rhetoric surrounding initiatives 330 and 336 on the upcoming general ballot counts on uninformed voters to decide complex issues on the basis of petty biases; both initiatives tend to work against the interests of health care consumers, and both deserve “No” votes.

The dueling measures arise from finger-pointing over health care costs and the extent to which malpractice lawsuits, and by extension doctors’ malpractice insurance, might be responsible. Sponsored by medical associations, drug companies and insurers, I-330 would put a cap of $350,000 on judgments for “pain and suffering” from malpractice lawsuits, and limit the fees attorneys representing aggrieved plaintiffs could collect. Backers decry a civil justice system in “crisis,” with doctors driven out of business by wildcat malpractice judgments handed down by gullible juries.

But a recent report by the state insurance commissioner suggests there is no “crisis”; paid malpractice claims in Washington have been dropping for several years, most judgments are for less than $100,000, and fewer than 50 judgments (out of more than 10,000 surveyed) over a 10-year period were million-dollar bonanzas for plaintiffs. Others studies suggest that in states where malpractice awards are capped, the cost of malpractice insurance hasn’t gone down. In the bigger picture, the initiative carries the banner of “tort reform,” a grail for conservatives nationwide to shield negligent corporations from consumer redress through civil court. The initiative should be opposed on that basis alone.

Backed primarily by trial lawyers, the competing I-336 seeks to bring negligent doctors to heel by allowing the state to revoke the license of practitioners who lose three malpractice claims in a 10-year period. It would also further regulate malpractice insurers and curb their authority to hike doctors’ rates. Whatever its merits, most troublesome is the “three strikes” provision, which could force more out-of-court settlements and defeat the transparency of civil trials.

Together, the initiatives are good examples of issues that deserve fuller deliberation by the Legislature -- which, as it happens, is why a third initiative before voters can be decided on the merits, again with a “No” vote. I-912 asks voters to repeal a 9.5 cent hike on the state’s gasoline tax; the increase was crafted as a compromise in Olympia, to fund a backlog of transportation improvements around the state. Included are a panoply of highway and bridge repairs around Kitsap County.

I-912 sponsors include the usual coalition of anti-tax zealots masquerading as consumer advocates. Curiously, they were silent while pump prices soared over the past 18 months and oil companies rang up big profits, only perking up when Olympia wanted a cut for the state coffers.

At least with a gas tax, you get something for your money: better highways. Even the state’s business association (certainly no friend of new or higher taxes) recognizes the importance of safe, well-maintained roads for the Washington economy and has opposed the gas-tax rollback.

So should you. Vote no on I-912.

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