Tort Reform and Health Care Reform

As television pundits point out the need for tort reform, the American Association for Justice (AAJ) explains that “bargaining away the legal rights of patients will do nothing to cover the uninsured or lower health care costs.”

Each year, 98,000 patients are killed because of preventable medical errors. That’s the equivalent of two 737 jets crashing every day for an entire year.

“We need to be making strides in patient safety, not limiting the rights of patients who have been injured through no fault of their own,” argues AAJ. “Tort changes won’t fix health care.”

Research indicates that many common perceptions about medical negligence are myths. Medical negligence lawsuits, for example, are few and far between, according to a Harvard study. The researchers found that few claims were without merit, and 80 percent of them involved physical injuries or death.

“These findings are absolutely no surprise to any of us in the policy community,” said William Safe, co-author of the study. “They are consistent with everything we suspected and learned from research over last 20 years, which is that the major problem out there is medical errors that are not compensated, rather than frivolous claims that are compensated.”

The problem, AAJ argues, is not medical negligence lawsuits but medical negligence itself. Preventable medical errors are the sixth biggest killer in America. Only cancer, heart disease, stroke, accidental injuries, and respiratory disease kill more Americans.

The civil justice system promotes accountability and patient safety. By relieving negligent doctors of their liability, we would only increase negligence and thereby increase the costs of health care. Preventable medical errors cost approximately $29 billion each year.

Another big myth is the medical malpractice is driving up health care costs. According to the Congressional Budget office, malpractice costs account for less than 2 percent of overall health care spending. Therefore, reducing malpractice costs by 25 percent would only lower health care costs by 0.4 percent!

Instead of taking rights away from injured patients, lawmakers should consider reforming the insurance industry, which is making record profits.

In a telling move, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has recently recognized the potential for financial savings by reducing medical errors. CMS has stopped paying for hospital and practitioner errors, thereby creating a financial incentive for hospitals to put patient safety first. In the past, Medicare rewarded hospital errors with larger reimbursements, by paying them an extra amount to treat various preventable complications that developed as a result of hospital negligence. Now the hospitals must pay for their mistake, and as a result, taxpayers are expected to save $21 million annually. The CMS experiment proves that hospitals can reduce the number of cases of medical negligence when the incentive is moving in the right direction.

Georgia is at the forefront of the tort reform debate. The Georgia Supreme Court has recently heard two cases that challenge the state’s medical malpractice cap. I’ll keep you updated here at the MLN Personal Injury Law Blog.