Thursday, July 12, 2012
New Report Questions Republican Support for Medical Malpractice Reform
The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to repeal the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA). In the 31st chapter of the “Repeal & Replace” saga, there is still no leadership-backed proposal for “replacing” Obamacare. But while the House majority offers no clear alternative to the Massachusetts-style ACA that Congress passed in 2010, the Republican-controlled House has acted on medical liability reform.
For instance, the misleadingly named “Help, Efficient, Accessible, Low Cost, Timely, Health Care (HEALTH) Act of 2011” (or HR 5, one of the first bills considered by the current Congress) capped awards for medical malpractice at $250,000 while establishing a 90-day statute of limitations for filing medical malpractice suits. Among the bill’s many gems is a ban on claiming punitive damages in an initial malpractice complaint.
Bills such as HR 5 rely on the assumption that medical malpractice lawsuits – by way of litigation costs and compensatory and punitive awards – are single-handedly increasing the costs of insurance and medical care.
A recent report from Public Citizen debunks that premise, noting that there were fewer medical malpractice payments made in 2011 than in any year since the government started recording such data. Payments this past year were also smaller on average than any year since 1995 and at their lowest in total since 1998. On average, 53% of medical malpractice payments were based on future medical costs.
But supporters of HR 5 are not interested in the future medical costs borne by victims of medical malpractice. All they claim to care about is the impact this type of litigation has on rising overall health care costs. And according to the new report, that impact is nominal at best.
Medical malpractice payments in 2011 were at 0.12% of total health care costs – an all-time low. Similarly, medical liability insurance premiums comprised 0.36% of overall health care costs in 2010, the last year for which data is available.
What the findings of this report show is that, while there are still hurdles to universal access to affordable medical care after the ACA, reforming medical malpractice litigation through HR 5 and similar legislation is not in the patients’ best interest.
Furthermore, the Republican argument that medical malpractice lawsuits are driving up health care costs simply doesn't hold water. Moving forward, Congress should consider legislation that improves access to health care without punishing patients or victims of preventable medical errors. There is simply no reason to excuse medical malpractice so long as it remains the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.