Tuesday, October 13

Reducing Malpractice v. Reducing Patients' Rights?

Factcheck has an interesting report about the effects of reducing malpractice claims and the impact on health care reform. Factcheck quotes the Congressional Budgeting Office that says that reducing malpractice claims would be equal to .5% cut in health care costs. While that figure may sound like small change, it is equal to $11 billion today and up to $41 billion over the next ten years.

While this is much smaller than some politicians have claimed (for example Rep. John Boehner on Oct. 2 said "We could save over $100 billion a year in less medicine being practiced if in fact we were to have real reform of medical malpractice laws."

The CBO also said "there's no consistent evidence that damage limits would keep doctors from ordering unnecessary tests.

Researchers say there's no good data on how much defensive medicine is being practice. Doctors could order additional tests for many reasons, including boosting their income and because patients ask for them. And it's difficult to separate the effects of tort reform from other factors that affect health care spending.

Thirty-six states already limit the compensation that patients can receive for medical errors. The 14 states that have not done so are Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.

Insurance giant WellPoint Inc. said in a May report that malpractice suits are one of the popular explanations for rising health care costs. However they point out this is much less true than costs associated with advances in medical technology, increasing regulation and rising obesity.

Will tort reform help without hurting patients? A study by UCLA/Rand Research claims, according to FactCheck, "that a 10 percent reduction in costs related to medical malpractice liability would increase the nation’s overall mortality rate by 0.2 percent. It concluded that the savings in money would not be worth the cost in lives." FactCheck cites another study published in the Journal of Health Economics, by health economists from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which "concludes that "tort reforms" don’t have any significant effect on patient outcomes."

The idea of reducing costs without harming those who have been medically harmed due to caregiver malfeasance is tricky territory given limits already in place. The proportion of medical malpractice verdicts among the top jury awards in the U.S. has declined during the past 20 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. "Of the top 25 awards so far this year, only one was a malpractice case. At least 30 states cap damages in medical suits, primarily for “pain and suffering” awards." Still, if there are reasonable ways to reduce drawn out trials, perhaps these can be considered as the House bill does by allowing financial incentives for states that try alternative medical liability programs that don't limit damage awards. All Business reports "States, for example, could require patients to first get a medical expert to certify that a case is "medically meritorious," or they could set up "early offer" programs that encourage doctors to admit errors and offer restitution as a way of discouraging lawsuits."

In the fight to reform health care, it seems like an even-handed approach to make it easier for medical treatment to occur and for providers and patients not to see each other as "the problem" is just what the doctor (and patient) have ordered.

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