Legal Researcher Says Tort Reform Will Not Improve Health Care

Ruqaiijah Yearby, MPH, JD, legal research and associate professor at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, says that tort reform is not enough to improve the nation’s health care, and she calls for a focus on the causes of lawsuits: the medical errors that kill 200,000 patients a year.

Tort reform refers to legislation that attempts to reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits or put a cap on the damages from medical malpractice lawsuits. Yearby argues that tort reform will not reduce health care costs or improve health care unless the government addresses the proliferation of unnecessary medical errors. Letting doctors off the hook, so to speak, would only contribute to the problem.

Yearby’s research uncovered what she says is an “alarming rate of medical errors.” She thinks that we should reduce the number of lawsuits not by limiting the rights of injured patients but by finding ways to reduce medical errors. These would save lives.

“The IOM (Institute of Medicine) concludes that about 98,000 Americans died from unnecessary medical errors in 2008,” said Yearby. “Deaths that cost the nation approximately $39 billion.”

Yearby added that additional data put the total number of deaths at around 200,000, making medical error the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

“Instead of adopting the IOM’s recommendations to prevent such medical errors, however, federal and state governments have elected to focus on tort reform,” Yearby said.

While tort reform may slightly lower the cost of health insurance and the number of medical malpractice lawsuits, the underlying problem of low-quality health care will continue.

In 2003, Texas voters approved a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

“The result was that the number of malpractice lawsuits was cut in half, malpractice premiums declined by 30 percent and there has been a 30 percent increase in newly licensed physicians,” said Yearby. “Despite this, however, one in four Texans remains without health insurance - the highest percentage uninsured in the country - and health care spending in Texas is growing faster than in any state.

“Obviously, tort reform alone is not the answer because it does not address the root cause of malpractice lawsuits: the continuation of unnecessary medical errors.”

Yearby thinks that federal and state governments should be developing plans to reduce medical errors rather than focusing on tort reform. In other words, it’s the medical errors, rather than the lawsuits surrounding those errors, that constitute the real problem. Yearby recommends a system for tracking and preventing medical errors; this type of system would reduce the number of lawsuits by reducing the number of errors.

“We need to create a mandatory national medical error reporting system and adopt initiatives that mandate the disclosure of medical errors,” said Yearby, adding that she thinks health care facilities and practitioners should acknowledge errors, apologize for them, and compensate patients for harm.

"State initiatives like those in Michigan and other states that require the disclosure of medical errors are the best models for health care reform because everyone gets what they want: reasonable insurance rates, a fair partnership between the medical profession and government, and, perhaps most important, better care for patients, who need a system they can trust."

In Georgia, we currently have a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, and it has recently been challenged in the State Supreme Court. If you have been injured by medical malpractice, contact an experienced Georgia medical malpractice attorney immediately. Call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.