The claim that medical malpractice payments are the culprit for rising health care costs has recently been discredited. According to a Public Citizen report, medical malpractice payments were at their lowest level on record in 2011. However, the report points out that the vast majority of patients are not being compensated, thus forcing patients to spend more on healthcare because of physicians’ mistakes.
While some policymakers may point out that the decrease in malpractice payments could be the result of safer medical care, there is no evidence for this assertion. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 700,000 Medicare patients suffer serious injuries from avoidable errors every year, with fatal outcomes for 80,000 of these people.
For the past two decades, leaders of physician groups and policy makers have attempted to restrict patients’ legal rights, even though there is no evidence that patients receive any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies. Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen, points out that malpractice costs fall into the future and must be taken on by someone, whether it be the victims themselves, their insurance companies or the taxpayers.
Although some have pointed out that malpractice litigation is frivolous, the report found that four-fifths of medical malpractice awards compensated for death, catastrophic harm or permanent injuries. With the decline in medical malpractice payments and increasing medical costs, the claim that limiting patients’ access to legal remedies will reduce costs is not valid.
Two states, Massachusetts and Oregon, have recently implemented reform efforts for medical malpractice. The goal of both efforts is to create open dialogue between physicians, insurers, and patients, along with their attorneys. By forgoing the typical “deny and defend” approach, these states hope to see more malpractice issues handled before a case has to go to trial. Sean Kolmer, assistant health policy advisor to the governor of Oregon, suggests that medical professional start the process by apologizing and offering compensation, if appropriate. Should the patient refuse both, mediation is the next step, and the justice system remains an option if the parties cannot find a resolution.
Although these two states seem to be making progress, medical malpractice remains a major cause for concern throughout the nation, especially if patients and taxpayers continue to pay for uncompensated medical errors and health care costs continued to rise. As Hines suggests, the “only sensible response is for policymakers and physicians to dedicate themselves to pursing patient safety to prevent these injuries and deaths with the same vigor which they have previously sought to restrict patients’ legal rights.”