By Troy Torres
Late Friday, as the business of the island was coming to a close, reporters waited in a small gallery after receiving a last minute phone call from the Office of the Speaker of the Guam Legislature: "The speaker will be holding a press conference on Bill 112; we hope you're able to make it, so sorry for the last minute notice."
Nearly 24 hours had passed since her vice speaker, Tina Muna Barnes, turned on her and led a small army of doctors in a calculated attack on Therese Terlaje's landmark legislation that will afford patients legal rights, when they are butchered or killed by medical malpractice.
"Whether poor people can access the justice system is what we're trying to accomplish with this bill," Ms. Terlaje has said of her legislation.
The carnage from the political battlefield was palpable in her office and in that gallery, as we all waited for the doors to open to her chambers and for her to appear before the people of Guam. From the night before to the moment she began to speak, doctors afraid of losing their legal immunity from liability had been vilifying her with misunderstandings, misconceptions, and downright lies to the public about what her bill does.
The attacks from some of the doctors, supported by the vice speaker, were calculated and harsh. Their agenda was clear: to beat Ms. Terlaje to submission. So, it was no surprise - especially in politics - that newsrooms received the last-minute phone call for the last-minute news conference. What was surprising, was what the speaker said when those doors opened.
Speaker Therese Terlaje, battle bruised from an onslaught of attacks from some of the richest and most powerful people on Guam and the mutiny from her own lieutenant, stood tall against the sun-soaked loneliness of her chambers - the light brightening the gallery when the doors slid open - and declared she is more determined than ever to pursue malpractice reform in the name of the poor and the middle class.
"I will not abandon them," she exclaimed beyond the well of water in her eyes.
She openly talked about the political battlefield - a conversation politicians normally hide from the media - and told the public in no uncertain terms that doctors had cunningly organized; that they are rich and influential; and that they were using their power to threaten senators from supporting her bill. Some even received the threat from their personal physicians that they will be shut out of medical services, a clear violation of the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics.
Ms. Terlaje, humbled but resolute, asked the public for help, to "mount a lobbying force equal to the doctors." She asked for those, "and we know there are many," she said, who have stories to tell and inform the public of this issue, to submit their testimonies or testify in person before the Legislature.
Within an hour of her public call, Annalyn Lagrimas, whose father died from an infection caused by malpractice, began to organize a protest on July 12 at 4:30 p.m. in front of the Guam Congress Building.
After describing the threats patients, including children and some senators, have been receiving from doctors, the speaker said her bill was well researched and thought out; a compromise that "continues the very special protections for doctors on Guam not available in any other U.S. jurisdiction," a point that helps to invalidate threats from doctors that passing Bill No. 112 will cause a medical exodus. After all, why would a medical provider move to a place, where the risk of being sued is even higher than Guam's.
No other group of people enjoys (what essentially is) immunity from tort liability on Guam. "There's no one else," Ms. Terlaje said, confirming doctors can commit malpractice on poor and middle class patients and never be held to account for it.
"Right now, if a doctor screws up and you're poor, no one is paying anyone," Ms. Terlaje said. "How do you get to justice? By paying $40,000, $50,000?" she asked rhetorically about the way to hold bad doctors accountable under the current system.
"I don't want to sit idle while this is happening in our community. If we decide no change, then we are purposely excluding the poor and limiting justice to only those who can afford it - the rich - in our community."
The irony of such tragic injustice is that the rich include the doctors.
By the end of the news conference, the speaker's tone had changed from timid to steely strength. She is ready for the battle ahead. Will you join her?