“That I Don’t Know”: The Uncertain Futures of Our Bodies in America

By Wendy S. Salkin

I. Our Bodies, Our Body Politic

On March 30, at a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an audience member asked then-presidential-hopeful Donald J. Trump: “[W]hat is your stance on women’s rights and their right to choose in their own reproductive health?” What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth with Chris Matthews. Here is an excerpt from that event:

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Much has been made of the fact that President-Elect Trump claimed that women who undergo abortion procedures should face “some sort of punishment.” Considerably less has been made of the fact that our President-Elect, in a moment of epistemic humility, expressed that he did not know what he would do, though he believed something had to be done. (He later revised his position, suggesting that the performer of the abortion rather than the woman undergoing the abortion would “be held legally responsible.”)

I am worried about the futures of our bodies, as, I think, are many. That a Trump Presidency makes many feel fear is not a novel contribution. Nor will I be able to speak to the very many, and varied, ways our bodies may be compromised in and by The New America—be it through removal from the country (see especially the proposed “End Illegal Immigration Act”), removal from society (see especially the proposed “Restoring Community Safety Act”), or some other means (see especially the proposed “Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act”).

But, I am like President-Elect Trump in this way: Like him, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what to say about what will happen to our bodies or to our body politic. So instead, today, I will take this opportunity to point to one aspect of the changing face of access to reproductive technologies that has already become a battleground in the fight over women’s bodies and will, I suspect, take center stage in the debate over the right and the ability to choose in coming years. Continue reading

CMS Prohibits Arbitration Clauses in Long-Term Care Facility Contracts

By Wendy S. Salkin

On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)—an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—released a final rule that “will revise the requirements that Long-Term Care facilities [LTCs] must meet to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs” (1). (Almost all LTCs receive funds from Medicare or Medicaid.) This is the first time that these requirements have been “comprehensively reviewed and updated since 1991” (6)—that is, in the past 25 years. One of the most striking changes to the regulation is found in §483.65, where CMS “require[es] that facilities must not enter into an agreement for binding arbitration with a resident or their representative until after a dispute arises between the parties” (12) which means that CMS is “prohibiting the use of pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements” (12). Among the reasons provided by CMS for this change is a recognition of the notable power differential between LTCs and their residents:

There is a significant differential in bargaining power between LTC facility residents and LTC facilities. LTC agreements are often made when the would-be resident is physically and possibly mentally impaired, and is encountering such a facility for the first time. In many cases, geographic and financial restrictions severely limit the choices available to a LTC resident and his/her family. LTC facilities are also, in many cases, the resident’s residence. These facilities not only provide skilled nursing care, but also everything else a resident needs. Many of these residents may reside there for a prolonged period of time, some for the rest of their lives. Because of the wide array of services provided and the length of time the resident and his/her family may have interactions with the LTC facility, disputes over medical treatment, personal safety, treatment of residents, and quality of services provided are likely to occur. Given the unique circumstances of LTC facilities, we have concluded that it is unconscionable for LTC facilities to demand, as a condition of admission, that residents or their representatives sign a pre-dispute agreement for binding arbitration that covers any type of disputes between the parties for the duration of the resident’s entire stay, which could be for many years. (402-403)

As The New York Times reported, when the rule was first proposed in July 2015, it was “aimed at improving disclosure.” But, this final version of the rule “went a step further than the draft, cutting off funding to facilities that require arbitration clauses as a condition of admission.”

Continue reading

Tort Reform in Oregon: Constitutional, After All?

By Alex Stein

Three years ago, Oregon’s Supreme Court voided the state’s $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages for medical malpractice for violating the constitutional guarantee that “In all civil cases the right of Trial by Jury shall remain inviolate” (Or. Const., Art. I, § 17, as interpreted in Lakin v. Senco Products, Inc., 987 P.2d 463, modified, 987 P.2d 476 (Or. 1999)). Klutschkowski v. Oregon Medical Group, 311 P.3d 461 (Or. 2013). This cap also clashed with “every man’s” right to “remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation” (Or. Const., Art. I, § 10, as interpreted in Smothers v. Gresham Transfer, Inc., 23 P.3d 333 (Or. 2001), and in Hughes v. PeaceHealth, 178 P.3d 225 (Or. 2008)). The Court reasoned that a person’s right to recover full jury-assessed compensation for injuries recognized as actionable in 1857, when Oregon adopted its constitution, cannot be abolished or abridged by statute or common law. For my discussion of the Klutschowski decision, see here. For my discussion of a similar entrenchment principle adopted by the Utah Supreme Court in Smith v. United States, 356 P.3d 1249 (Utah 2015), see here.

The Oregon Supreme Court has now changed this course in a long precedential decision, Horton v. Oregon Health and Science University, — P.3d —- 359 Or. 168 (Or. 2016). Continue reading

Medical Malpractice: The New Wave of Constitutional Attacks on Damage Caps

By Alex Stein

About forty-five years ago, tort reforms took off and states have started capping compensation awards for victims of medical malpractice. The plaintiffs bar countered this initiative by raising different constitutional challenges against caps. Those challenges alluded to equal protection, due process, separation of powers, and the general right to a jury trial. Some state courts have rejected those challenges, while other courts have struck the caps down for being unconstitutional. For discussion and the list of representative cases, see Alex Stein, Toward a Theory of Medical Malpractice, 97 Iowa L. Rev. 1201, 1253-54 (2012).

Courts’ decisions in favor and against the caps juxtaposed the victim’s entitlement to remedy against society’s interest in reducing doctors’ compensation burden and cost of liability insurance. Courts that gave precedence to the latter interest did so in the hopes to contain the cost of medical care for patients. The “trickle down” theory underlying these hopes has been questioned on empirical and doctrinal grounds. See Tom Baker, The Medical Malpractice Myth 1-21 (2005) (demonstrating that claims linking the cost of medical care to medical-malpractice liability are empirically unfounded and calling them an “urban legend”) and Stein, id. at 1247-56 (showing that, as a doctrinal matter, doctors can be found responsible for patients’ injuries only in extreme cases and that a rational physician should care more about being identified and reported to the federal databank as a malpractitioner than about how much she will pay if found liable). The Florida Supreme Court has rejected that theory in a recent decision, McCall v. United States, 134 So.3d 894 (Fla. 2014), that relied (inter alia) on Tom Baker’s work. For my discussion of this landmark decision, see here.

For obvious reasons, plaintiffs’ attorneys are loath to depend on such tradeoffs and prefer to base their claims on constitutional rights that are not subject to balancing.  Continue reading

Nevada’s $350,000 Cap on Noneconomic Damages Held Constitutional and Applicable Per Incident

By Alex Stein

Bad news for Nevada’s victims of medical malpractice. This state’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages as limiting recovery for all kinds of victims and injuries. Tam v. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., — P.3d —- , 2015 WL 5771245 (Nev. 2015).  Moreover, the Court held that the cap applies per incident, which encompasses all mistakes that the doctor may have made in delivering a single treatment to a patient and all the victims of those mistakes (such as twins born with birth defects as a result of negligent prenatal care or delivery). For my discussion of the “per incident” and alternative approaches to caps, see here. Continue reading

Fetal Personhood and the Constitution

By John A. Robertson

The Rubio-Huckabee claim that actual and legal personhood start at conception has drawn trenchant responses from Art Caplan on the medical uncertainty of such a claim and David Orentlicher, drawing on Judith Thomson’s famous article, that even if a fetus is a person, woman would not necessarily have a duty to keep it in her body.

Their debate claim that the fetus is already a legal person under the constitution also deserves a response, for it has no basis in positive law.  In Roe v. Wade all nine justices agreed that the use of “person” in the Constitution always assumed a born person, and therefore that the 14th Amendment’s mention of person did not confer constitutional rights until after a live birth.  In the years since Roe, when the make-up of the court has changed, no justice has ever disagreed with that conclusion, including those who would overturn Roe and Casey. Continue reading

A Right to Die? The M.D. Case Before the Argentine Supreme Court

by Martín Hevia

In 2015, the Argentine Supreme Court is to hear a case involving the right to die, death with dignity, and informed consent. Because of a car accident in the Province of Neuquén, M.D., the patient, has been in a permanent, irreversible, vegetative state for 18 years. His sisters and curators have requested the discontinuation of the vital supportive measures which maintained M.D alive in an artificial way.

This will not be the first time that the Supreme Court hears a case of death with dignity. In 2012, the Court heard the case of Albarracini Nieves, who was unconscious when admitted to a hospital in Buenos Aires. The physicians established that a blood transfusion was necessary. But, as Albarracini belonged to the cult “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, he had had made a statement before a public notary in 2008 where he expressed he would not accept any blood transfusions even if his life were in danger. His father requested a cautionary measure that would order the transfusion to be practiced. The first instance court admitted the solicited measure, considering that although Albarracini had expressed that he refused an eventual transfusion, he was not “in a condition to make decisions with full discernment.”The case then reached the Supreme Court, which argued that there were no reasons to doubt over the current validity of Albarracini’s expression of will and that there was no evidence that he would not have considered the significance of his decision.The Court argued that “…this Court has clearly established that Article 19 of the National Constitution grants the sphere of freedom, within which he can freely adopt fundamental decisions about himself without any State or third parties interference, as long as those decisions do not violate third parties’ rights.”The Court stated that“The possibility of accepting or refusing a specific treatment, or selecting an alternative form of treatment, is part of self-determination and personal autonomy; that patients have the right to choose options according to their own values or points of view, even when they may seem irrational or imprudent, and that free choice must be respected.”

The M.D. case is different in that it is difficult to prove the patient’s will – unlike in the Albarracini Nieves case – because there is not a patient’s written statement on whether it is appropriate for him to continue or not certain medical treatment to keep him alive. The Superior Court of Justice of the Province of Neuquén has decided on the case invoking the 2009 Patients´ Rights Act: according to this law, the sisters have standing to grant informed consent in the name of their brother.

The Supreme Court and Argentine lower courts have interpreted the National Constitution and concluded that it grants patients a wide range of autonomous choice as regards their autonomy, reflected in their right to refuse medical treatment.  On that basis, the Supreme Court will probably confirm the decision of the lower court.

The Constitutionality of Damage Caps in Pennsylvania

By Alex Stein

In its recent decision, Zauflik v. Pennsbury School Dist., — A.3d —- (Pa. 2014), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld the constitutionality of the statutory $500,000 cap on tort compensation payable by the local government. This decision was delivered in a case involving a student who lost her leg in an accident in which a school bus accelerated out of control onto a sidewalk and struck her (along with other nineteen students). The jury awarded the student $14,036,263.39 ($338,580 for past medical expenses, $2,597,682 for future medical expenses, and $11.1 million for past and future pain and suffering), but the court reduced the award to $500,000.

In affirming that ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a number of constitutional challenges against the statutory cap. Continue reading

Medical Malpractice Decision of the Year: Florida Supreme Court voids the $1M cap on noneconomic damages for a patient’s wrongful death

By Alex Stein

We are just in mid-March, but yesterday’s decision of the Florida Supreme Court, McCall v. United States, — So.3d —-, 2014 WL 959180 (Fla. 2014), is – and will likely remain – the most important medical malpractice decision of 2014.

The case at bar presented a particularly egregious example of medical malpractice: a young woman died after delivering a healthy baby as a result of preventable loss of blood. This tragic event took place at an air-force base hospital. The victim’s survivors therefore filed their medical malpractice suit with a federal court pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Under FTCA, the suit was governed by Florida law. Following bench trial, the United States District Court found the United States liable, but applied Florida’s $1,000,000 cap on wrongful-death noneconomic damages recoverable for medical malpractice. On appeal, the victim’s survivors challenged the cap’s constitutionality. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, but certified questions of Florida constitutional law with regard to the cap.

The Florida Supreme Court rephrased the certified questions as follows:
Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, violate the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?

Continue reading

Unconstitutional Time Bars in Washington

By Alex Stein

Schroeder v. Weighall — P.3d —-, 2014 WL 172665 (Wash. 2014), is the second Washington Supreme Court’s decision that voids the Legislature’s time bar for medical malpractice suits.  The first decision, DeYoung v. Providence Medical Center, 960 P.2d 919 (Wash. 1998), voided an eight-year repose provision for violating the constitutional prohibition on special privileges (Article I, section 12). This statutory provision benefited healthcare providers and their insurers at the expense of injured patients whose cause of action accrued over a long period of time and consequently tolled the statute of limitations.  The Court held that the Legislature had no rational basis for blocking suits filed in connection with more-than-eight-years-old incidents of medical malpractice. The Court based that decision on the finding by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that old medical malpractice incidents account for “less than one percent of all insurance claims nation-wide.” This finding convinced the Court that the “relationship between the goal of alleviating any medical insurance crisis and the class of persons affected by the eight-year statute of repose is too attenuated to survive rational basis scrutiny.”

In Schroeder, the Court used the same constitutional prohibition to void a new statutory provision that eliminated tolling of the statute of limitations for minors in medical malpractice actions. Continue reading

Georgia’s Medical-Malpractice Reform Bill

By Alex Stein

Georgia’s Senate is considering a far-reaching medical malpractice reform: see here. If implemented, this reform would substitute the conventional malpractice regime by a no-fault compensation scheme for patients sustaining medical injuries. This scheme will be modeled on the extant workers’ compensation regime. An injured patient will submit her claim to a special administrative tribunal—the Patient Compensation Board—that will determine her eligibility for compensation promptly and expediently.

Will this reform succeed? Continue reading

Oregon’s Unfulfilled Tort Reform

By Alex Stein

Oregon has a statute capping noneconomic damages recoverable in medical malpractice suits at $500,000.

The Oregon Supreme Court decided that this cap is unconstitutional insofar as it clashes with a person’s right to recover full jury-assessed compensation for injuries recognized as actionable in 1857 when Oregon adopted its constitution. Specifically, it ruled that Article I, sections 10 and 17, of the Oregon Constitution entrench this right and deny the legislature the power to curtail it: see Smothers v. Gresham Transfer, Inc., 23 P.3d 333 (Or. 2001), and Hughes v. PeaceHealth, 178 P.3d 225 (Or. 2008). This ruling separated the constitutionally protected pre-1857 causes of action, which the statutory cap cannot curtail, from the constitutionally unprotected causes of action that came into existence after 1857 and that can consequently be capped.

Consequently, in order to reduce a jury’s award of noneconomic damages to $500,000, the defendant must show that the plaintiff’s complaint was not actionable before 1857. To adjudicate such claims, courts must carry out an historical investigation into Oregon’s medical malpractice law.

The Court’s most recent decision on that issue, Klutschkowski v. Oregon Medical Group, — P.3d —-, 2013 WL 5377913 (Or. 2013), made this task easy to perform. Continue reading

Using the Taxing Power for Public Health

By Scott Burris

In a Perspective in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, Michelle Mello and Glenn Cohen, both professors at Harvard, write about the prospects for using the constitutional Taxing Power to adopt innovative laws to advance public health objectives.  Cueing off the Supreme Court’s decision in the Affordable Care Act litigation, Mello — who is also a member of PHLR’s Methods Core — and Cohen write that the Court appears to have opened the door for “more targeted, assertive interventions to promote public health” under the Taxing Power than Congress has previously pursued. “For example, instead of merely taxing tobacco sales, the federal government could require individuals to pay a tax penalty unless they declare that they haven’t used tobacco products during the year. It could give a tax credit to people who submit documentation that their bodymass index is in the normal range or has decreased during the year or to diabetic persons who document that their glycated hemoglobin levels are controlled. It could tax individuals who fail to purchase gym memberships. …These strategies depart from traditional uses of taxes by targeting omissions and noncommercial activities that are important drivers of chronic disease.”  Read the full article online at the New England Journal of Medicine online.