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March 3, 2010

Medical Malpractice Payments Continue to Fall, Public Citizen Analysis Shows

Data Show That Congress Should Focus on Curtailing Medical Errors, Not Patients’ Rights to Seek Redress for Injuries 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Fewer medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009 than any year on record, according to an update of the National Practitioner Data Bank that was released this week.

The data contradict claims by some that medical malpractice litigation is to blame for rising health care costs. Changing the liability system to the detriment of patients will not curb health care costs.

The value of malpractice payments in actual (unadjusted) dollars was the lowest since 1999. Adjusted for inflation, payments were at their lowest since 1992, a Public Citizen analysis shows.

Last year was the fifth consecutive year the number of payments has fallen and the sixth straight year in which the value of payments has fallen. In contrast, U.S. health care costs have increased every year since 1965, the earliest year for which such data exist.

Between 2000 and 2009, health care spending rose 83 percent while medical malpractice payments fell 8 percent. (Both figures are in unadjusted dollars.)

A total of 10,772 payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009, totaling $3.49 billion. That figure equals 0.14 of one percent of the Centers for Medicare and Medcaid Services’ estimated $2.5 trillion in overall U.S. health care spending for 2009.

Numerous studies have found that injuries and deaths caused by medical errors dwarf the number of actual medical malpractice payments. For example, the Institute of Medicine found in 1999 that 44,000 to 98,000 people die every year due to avoidable errors. Subsequent studies have estimated even higher casualty levels.

Proposals to set up alternative “health courts” that theoretically would compensate a greater percentage of patients in a less adversarial setting are misguided. Such a system would cost several times as much as the status quo, if administered fairly. The only way to save money would be to impose draconian limits on compensation.

“Medical malpractice payments have fallen for years and are at the lowest level on record,” said David Arkush, director of the Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Litigation accounts for a miniscule fraction of health costs, small enough to be a rounding error. It is ridiculous that certain members of Congress continue to obsess about this greatly exaggerated problem. They should know better, and they should focus instead on fixing real problems like the crisis of preventable medical errors.”

The national data bank began collecting data in the fourth quarter of 1990.

READ Public Citizen’s analysis.

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