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Sept. 9, 2009

President Obama Should Focus on Curbing Epidemic of Medical Errors, Not Shielding Those Responsible

Statement of David Arkush, Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

We are extremely concerned about news reports that President Obama will discuss medical malpractice litigation tonight.

Medical malpractice “reform” will only increase costs, not decrease them. Providers will retain a strong incentive to overprescribe tests and procedures, and they will have even less incentive to work carefully and safely. Medical negligence often causes severe injuries that require life-long medical treatment. If providers are not required to pay for the harm they cause, then those costs are shifted to the government and the taxpayers.

The nation faces an epidemic of preventable medical errors, which the president has acknowledged cost 100,000 lives per year. Public Citizen reported last month on 10 simple steps that could save, conservatively, 85,000 lives and $35 billion per year. President Obama should focus on improving patient safety with steps like these, not reducing accountability for negligent doctors and hospitals.

Some claim that medical malpractice litigation is driving up medical costs, but the facts completely contradict this claim. Public Citizen reported in July that although medical costs have skyrocketed in recent years, the costs of medical malpractice litigation are at their lowest level on record, amounting to just 0.6 percent of total health care costs.

Some claim that so-called “defensive medicine” is driving up health care costs, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Study after study, including by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, has found no evidence of a link between “defensive medicine” and rising health care costs.  Further, no study has distinguished successfully between “defensive medicine” and appropriate care for patients.

The most obvious cause of overuse of medical tests and procedures is the fee-for-service system, in which medical providers are paid for each service they perform rather than for providing quality care. Providers have a strong incentive to provide excessive care even in the absence of liability concerns.

The president has made much of his commitment to “evidence-based policy.” We applaud that commitment and urge him to adhere to it when considering accountability for medical errors.

READ Public Citizen’s report on reducing medical errors. http://www.citizen.org/documents/BackToBasics.pdf.

READ Public Citizen’s report on the declining cost of medical malpractice litigation.

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