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Study: Malpractice claims not driving health costs

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Medical malpractice litigation is not a primary driver of health care costs, according to a new study by consumer protection group Public Citizen. The group's analysis of medical malpractice litigation trends indicates that malpractice lawsuits are at an all-time low, undercutting many of the arguments for tort "reform."

"Contrary to the promises of policymakers and leaders of physician groups who have spent the past two decades championing efforts to restrict patients' legal rights, there is no evidence that patients receive any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies," said one of the report's authors. "Instead, malpractice victims and ordinary patients end up absorbing significant costs for uncompensated medical errors."

Tort "reform" advocates (insurance lobby groups) have long blamed rising medical costs on litigation. Although their position is unsupported, they have been successful in curtailing patients' rights. In California, since the 70s, medical malpractice law (MICRA) has restricted patients to a maximum of $250,000 for pain, suffering, or death caused by medical negligence. Thus, nomatter how egregious or obvious the negligence, compensation for the death of a retiree or homemaker is capped at $250,000 - to be split between all the survivors and their attorneys. Limb amputation, disfiguring burns, and other "untreatable" injuries defined by pain and suffering, are capped at $250,000 as well.

The cost of medical malpractice is a real cost. It has to be borne by someone. When we put caps on compensation, we force the unfortunate victims of medical malpractice to bear the brunt of the damage...uncompensated. But when we let the jury system work, and let medical malpractice insurance do its job, we distribute the cost more widely. We also incentivize the healthcare system to promote safe practices and protocols.

The vast majority of medical malpractice claims compensated patients for serious harm such as catastrophic injuries, permanent disfigurement or wrongful death. Despite the serious nature of most medical malpractice cases in 2011, litigation was only 0.12 percent of all health care costs.

"The juxtaposition of declining medical malpractice payments and skyrocketing medical costs exposes bogus claims that reducing patients' access to legal remedies will reduce costs," said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen. "The only sensible response is for policymakers and physicians to dedicate themselves to pursuing patient safety to prevent these injuries and deaths with the same vigor with which they have previously sought to restrict patients' legal rights."

Source: Insurance Journal, "Malpractice Claims at Record Low, Not Driving Health Costs: Consumer Group" July 131, 2012

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