The new health care bill has generated a lot of buzz and misrepresentation, specifically with regard to medical malpractice reform. The medical malpractice system exists so that patients injured by the negligence of medical personnel can sue for their injuries. It is currently the only opportunity for victims of medical malpractice to redress their injuries in any meaningful way.
Contrary to popular political opinion, medical malpractice lawsuits do not drive up health care costs, except in a minuscule way, if at all. In fact, in addition to providing fair compensation, the present medical malpractice system potentially saves thousands of additional patients from avoidable deaths. However, certain politicians today want to limit patient rights and close the courthouse doors to victims of medical malpractice.
Preventable Medical Errors Occur Too Often
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, the estimated number of people who die from medical malpractice each year ranges somewhere between 44,000 and 98,000. Another nonprofit organization, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, found that roughly 15 million cases of preventable medical negligence take place annually in the U.S. These statistics are profoundly alarming and represent a true public health crisis in the U.S.
Therefore, the focus of any reforms of the medical malpractice system must be on the prevention of medical errors by health care personnel that harm so many patients in the U.S. today.
Instead of implementing measures to stop medical errors from occurring, however, some politicians in Washington D.C. are ignoring the outrageous number of preventable medical errors that occur in the U.S. health care system. Politicians also overlook the substantial financial and human costs that victims of medical malpractice endure, choosing instead to pass laws to restrict patient rights. The political agenda of these politicians, referred to as “tort reform,” raises several questions.
Do Tort Reform Measures Lower Health Care Costs?
Tort reform, or modifying the system of compensation and liability for legal injury by limiting patients’ rights, was repeatedly contested during the debate over the recently passed health care bill. Some politicians in Congress who were against the health care legislation, but in favor of tort reform, argued that the medical malpractice system required doctors to practice “defensive medicine.” This in turn, they said, makes health care more expensive for the average person.
For example, some Washington D.C. politicians claimed, without any real evidence, that the “fear” of medical malpractice lawsuits forced doctors to order unnecessary tests or procedures in an effort to avoid being sued. These politicians further argued that the practice of defensive medicine was the main driver behind the exorbitant rise in health care spending and that by limiting patients rights the U.S. could save “hundreds of billions of dollars annually” in health care costs. However, the actual facts show that the claims spouted by these politicians, who are driven by their insurance industry masters, are far from accurate. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has effectively studied the impact of tort reform on the costs of health care in the U.S.
The CBO discovered that the proposed draconian tort reform measures, rather than saving the health care system “hundreds of billions annually,” would only salvage around $5.4 billion a year. This represents a meager savings of two-tenths of one percent of the annual U.S. health care budget of $2.3 trillion. Late last year the CBO also reported that close to 5,000 more patients could die every year if tort reform measures are enacted, which would increase the national mortality rate by two-tenths of one percent. Therefore, while limiting medical malpractice lawsuits through tort reform produces an insignificant savings to the health care budget, it also causes more fatalities to unsuspecting patients.
Does Tort Reform Ultimately Help Patients?
Since there is no credible evidence that tort reform reduces total health care costs in anything but a negligible way, it seems like the truth has exposed the fallacy of avid tort reform advocates. Another piece of this truth is the impact that tort reform has on patients. According to an article that reviewed proposed medical liability reforms on the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) website, studies on the direct or indirect effects of limiting malpractice payouts to victims demonstrate negative changes in protecting patients from injury. Further, as the CBO advised, almost 5,000 more U.S. patients could die annually if Congress decides to buy into the tort reform agenda.
Most proposed limits to medical malpractice litigation try to curb legal rights and costly verdicts, but do not address the prevention of medical errors.
The facts are clear. Tort reform may actually harm patients by focusing on costs over patient safety. In addition, award caps can also put a maximum price on a person’s potential for injury compensation. This may pull attorneys toward certain cases with higher damage caps and away from other malpractice lawsuits with less monetary value, ultimately harming many of those who need legal representation and financial help with continuing medical bills. Consequently, tort reform laws that limit patients’ rights and cause greater deaths, but do not lower medical costs, fail to provide a solution to the health care crisis in the U.S.
Do Medical Negligence Lawsuits Create an Administrative Burden for Courts?
Another falsehood advanced by the tort reformers and insurance industry lobbyists is that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits clogs the court system. However, the facts prove otherwise. In fact, many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have reported that medical malpractice lawsuits and payouts have dramatically declined in the last five years. Based on information from a prominent consumer interest group, recent data released by the National Practitioner Data Bank reveals a national decrease in litigation expenses for medical negligence during 2009. Accordingly, there is no basis to conclude that medical malpractice lawsuits burden the court system.
Tort Reform Is Not a Game
If politicians, legislators or other people are keeping score of the political medical malpractice reform game, the injured victims will always be on the losing team. Patients can, however, help prevent medical errors. They should keep better track of their own medical histories and review their medical records for accuracy from time to time. Doctors should also be questioned about anything unfamiliar or that seems unnecessary. Patients should invite friends or family members to act as advocates if the sick or injured are seriously ill, or confused about medications or procedures.
Victims of medical negligence deserve their day in court and financial compensation to help them with the costs of their injuries. Those in favor of limiting medical malpractice lawsuits by pushing for tort reform seem to forget about those harmed and only think in terms of financial costs to people not directly affected by medical errors. If you or a family member was injured because of medical negligence, contact a medical malpractice attorney in your area to discuss your legal options and rights.