Call for Medical Liability Reform a Red Herring Proffered byOpponents of Meaningful Health Care Reform. Crisis Does Exist, But it Is in Patient Safety, Not Malpractice Litigation.
With President Barack Obama’s health care summit pending, a lot of politically expedient misinformation about medical liability reform is being spread. Public Citizen issued a new report this week to correct the record and highlight the five key points in the malpractice crisis that have largely been ignored:
1. Medical malpractice payments have fallen steadily for years and are now at or near historic lows;
2. Although an experiment in Texas has been promoted as proof of the potential benefits of so-called "tort reform," health care cost increases in that state have far outpaced the national average since it instituted strict liability limits in 2003. Meanwhile, its worst-in-the-nation uninsured rate has gotten even worse;
3. Most of the money paid out for medical malpractice is for serious outcomes, such as death or quadriplegia. Tort reform proponents call for damage caps that would affect the ability of seriously injured people to obtain reasonable compensation; the caps would not reduce the incidence of alleged "junk lawsuits";
4. A serious patient safety crisis does exist; and
5. Addressing senseless medical errors would save several times as much money as the combined costs of the medical malpractice litigation system, including those for verdicts and settlements, defense litigation, and liability insurance companies’ profits and overhead.
Medical malpractice litigation has fallen steadily throughout most of the past decade and is now at or near the lowest level on record, analysis of the federal National Practitioner Data Bank shows.
The real crisis surrounding medical malpractice is not the cost of litigation but rather the amount of malpractice. Only about 11,000 malpractice payments are made on behalf of doctors every year. The true inequity in the malpractice system is that so few victims receive any compensation at all. But even if injured patients were to receive compensation for their medical needs, that still would fail to address the tragedies inflicted by medical malpractice.
As policymakers become aware of the truth – that medical malpractice litigation is quite rare and represents only a tiny fraction of overall health care cost – the outspoken tort reformers have turned to a new argument. Now they claim that it is not litigation, but the fear of litigation, driving skyrocketing health care costs, with doctors ordering excessive tests and procedures (so-called "defensive medicine"). In reality, the cost of the entire medical liability system – including payments, litigation costs and insurance company profits and overhead – amounts to less than six-tenths of 1 percent of national health care expenditures, according to Public Citizen’s analysis.
For more information, Public Citizen’s report assessing national medical malpractice data is available at http://www.citizen.org/documents/NPDB_Report_200907.pdf. Public Citizen’s report analyzing Texas’ 2003 liability law is available at http://www.citizen.org/documents/Texas_Liability_Limits.pdf.
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
For more information, please visit www.citizen.org. Contact: Taylor Lincoln (202) 454-5197, Barbara Holzer (202) 588-7716