Lights, camera, scalpel!

Cameras could be filming political infomercials at a hospital near you

On a Saturday afternoon in July, Bob Blissitt was watching television in his Buford home when he came across a curious infomercial. A woman was shown breathing through oxygen tubes, her mouth drooping and her body strapped to a stretcher. Five hospital employees moved the woman to a hospital bed before the infomercial cut to the patient, wrapped in blankets, looking scared and confused.

The woman on the stretcher was Blissitt's mother. She had died in April, a few months after visiting St. Joseph's Hospital in north Atlanta.

According to Brandon Hornsby, an attorney whom the Blissitt family later retained, Bob Blissitt immediately called his sister, Carol, and told her what he had seen. Carol called the hospital and described the infomercial to a representative, who told her there was "no record of a written consent for the filming" and that such filming would be a "violation of ... medical privacy rights," according to a lawsuit filed last month on behalf of the Blissitts in Fulton County Superior Court. The suit alleges invasion of privacy and breach of fiduciary duty.

"[Carol and Bob] were really shocked by this," says Hornsby, the lead attorney on the case. "If it's gotten to the point where hospitals are letting film crews swagger in, we've got a major problem."

It turns out that Blissitt's privacy may be a casualty of the highly politicized fight for tort reform. Tort reform legislation is being floated in Congress and several states, including Georgia.

As insurance malpractice premiums for doctors and hospitals rise at alarming rates, groups of medical reformers are alleging that trial lawyers are to blame. That's because they're winning multimillion-dollar verdicts in medical liability cases — and perhaps driving up insurance rates and pushing doctors out of practice as a result. In part of the infomercial that Bob Blissitt didn't see, former Atlanta Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Lee Cross sadly packs up his office, saying that his premiums are too high to continue practicing medicine in Georgia.

The solution, at least to groups like Doctors for Medical Liability Reform, a coalition of 230,000 medical professionals, is tort reform. Tort reform would cap pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases — and therefore lower doctors' insurance premiums, according to the physicians' group.

But some studies have shown that malpractice is less the culprit in rising premiums — that in fact insurance companies' greed is to blame. The amount of money insurance companies lose in liability cases is miniscule compared to the billions they rake in annually, and in states where tort reform has passed, insurance premiums weren't reduced one bit, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

"We are here to protect the little guy," says Adrienne Hobbs, a local trial lawyer who handles medical malpractice cases. "If legislation passes, it's not going to help the doctors. It's only going to curtail the individual's right to sue. How can you put a limit on personal suffering? Does $250,000 sound like a fair price for a lost leg as a result of a doctor's mistake?"

Rob Portman, attorney for Doctors for Medical Liability Reform, declined comment because of the pending litigation. "DMLR is taking this seriously and will respond in court," he says.

Bill Powers, executive vice president of the public relations firm the Mercury Group, which produced the infomercial, and Lynn Peterson, spokeswoman for St. Joseph's, also declined comment.

The topic of tort reform has grown increasingly partisan in recent years, with most Republicans supporting the caps on damages and many Democrats claiming the caps will hurt malpractice victims.

Doctors for Medical Liability Reform's website claims that Republican U.S. Reps. Johnny Isakson, Jack Kingston, Mac Collins, and Democrat David Scott have signed the "Protect Patients Now" pledge. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, a prominent trial lawyer, has come under increased scrutiny by pro-tort reform groups during the campaign. And President Bush has urged Congress to pass the tort reform legislation; the House of Representatives has voted for one bill, while similar legislation is stalled in the Senate.

Georgia has its own version of tort reform legislation, which has been stalled for several sessions and will once again be debated in the 2005 General Assembly.

"We've fought against [tort reform] for two sessions now," says Allie Wall, executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer group. "But the rhetoric is twisted and continues to be more contorted. Everyone loses in a politically heated atmosphere."

Including, according to Hornsby's lawsuit, Sarah Evelyn Blissitt.

The complaint says 76-year-old Blissitt was rushed in late February to St. Joseph's after suffering a fracture to her lower leg. Blissitt's children and husband met her in the emergency room. The family noticed a film crew that was "being escorted by two individuals wearing St. Joseph's identification badges," the lawsuit states. The family asked the crew what they were filming, and the crew responded that they were working on an in-house video to show the relationship between emergency room teams and medical technicians, according to the complaint. The Blissitt family asked if the crew was filming patients, and the crew said no.

The suit states that Sarah Evelyn Blissitt was a private person who refused to be photographed for the last 47 years, after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Hornsby points out that the infomercial that pitted Blissitt as an unwitting poster child is still being aired, though Blissitt has been removed from the footage.

"The ends don't justify the means," Hornsby says. "People can't trample over the right of patients they claim they're trying to protect for a political cause. It's contrary to what [DMLR] says they're doing, and wrong."