Editor's Corner

All in all, it was a big-ish week for healthcare news. On Thursday, after three years of study, a congressional-backed committee led by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) issued a report concluding that a system of universal coverage may be the most effective way of solving the nation's healthcare crisis. It's a little early to suggest that anything will come of the proposal--the obstacles are well known and unlikely to have become any less formidable since the Clinton years. But the report sets the stage for a series of five congressional hearings that will probably take place in the run-up to the November elections. That's likely to put the issue of universal coverage in the spotlight.

Earlier in the week, hospital executives in California and in several other states got a rude awakening when celebrity activist Erin Brockovich--the one time legal assistant made famous by the 2000 film starring Julia Roberts--filed a series of lawsuits accusing hospitals of defrauding taxpayers by billing Medicare for care linked to preventable medical errors. How real is the threat? It's hard to know. But the case seems certain to galvanize public attention and could create a serious image problem for the hospital industry.

There's nothing new about the argument that hospitals should not benefit from their mistakes. Healthcare economists and advocacy groups have been making the argument for years. And federal officials have recently proposed cutting off Medicare reimbursements in cases involving preventable medical errors. But there is something novel about the idea that somebody would try to turn what has largely been viewed as a curable problem withing the industry into what looks to many observers to be the mother of all malpractice suits. - Matthew