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Congressman Braley Addresses Medical Malpractice Myths

November 23, 2009

By CATHLEEN F. CROWLEY, Staff writer
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First published: Monday, November 23, 2009
WASHINGTON – A short but fiery speech made on the floor of the House of Representatives has raised the hopes of patient safety advocates across the nation.
Rep. Bruce Braley, a second-term Democrat from Iowa, gave a speech about medical errors moments before the House voted on the health reform bill earlier this month.

Braley, 52, a trial lawyer who specializes in malpractice, said he had two minutes to prepare his speech. As he spoke, he was taunted by Republicans shouting ""trial lawyer."" But Braley impressed Helen Haskell, whose son died from a medical error.

""I was very pleased that somebody was standing up for patient safety. I thought the heckling was unbelievable,"" said Haskell, of South Carolina. Her son Lewis Blackman, 15, died in 2000 after a minor surgical procedure.

Haskell called Braley's office the next day to thank him.

Patient safety activists are cautiously optimistic that Braley may be the champion they need for their cause. ""He's definitely an emerging leader and he seems to be very passionate about (patient safety)"" said Lisa McGiffert, who heads Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project.

""Who will speak for the patients?"" Braley said in his House speech. Referring to an Institute of Medicine report, Braley said ""They told us the most significant way to reduce the cost of medical malpractice is to emphasize patient safety by reducing the number of preventable medical errors.""

Consumers Union invited Braley to speak at its conference on patient safety in Washington, D.C., last week.

While some members of Congress have led efforts to increase the public reporting of hospital-acquired infections, few have embraced the larger issue of medical errors. Nearly 200,000 Americans die each year from errors made during their medical care and from infections acquired in the hospital. The lack of progress in reducing errors was the subject of a Hearst Newspapers series that can be read at

""I am so grateful to Hearst publications for their Dead by Mistake series to put the human face on the problems that bring you all here today,"" Braley said to the audience at the Consumers Union conference. Braley said he has passed the series to other members of Congress to bolster support for patient safety initiatives in the health reform bill.

Braley grew up on a small farm in Iowa. His father was seriously injured in a fall from a grain elevator and his mother went back to work as a teacher to support the family. His father eventually went into the insurance business, while Braley began working in his teens to help the family.

He was a successful lawyer in Waterloo, Iowa, when he ran for an open seat in the House of Representatives in 2006.

In his short political career, Braley has rapidly climbed the ladder of leadership in the House.

Braley founded and chairs the Populist Caucus, which is a congressional group devoted to economic issues of the middle class. He was named vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats. Braley leads the committee's ""Red to Blue"" effort to capture Republican House seats.

During his second term, Braley was appointed to the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

He also is past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association.

""When my colleagues chose to attack me by screaming 'trial lawyer, trial lawyer' it wasn't affecting me in the least,"" Braley told advocates last week at the Consumers Union conference. ""I was thinking of people that need someone to stand up for them when it comes to important issues of patient safety.""

Braley said he fought for an initiative in the House health reform bill that will require Medicare to revamp its reimbursement system from a fee-for-service model to a pay-for-performance model. He believes it will reduce errors and improve quality, and he said he hopes to sponsor more legislation to improve patient safety.

""Unless medical consumers know that they have a system that is going to protect them, that is going to give them access to information to make them informed consumers,"" Braley said, ""we will have missed a great opportunity to transform our system of health care delivery.""