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July 11, 2012  

Medical Malpractice Payments Hit Record Low Last Year, New Public Citizen Report Finds

Analysis Discredits Claim That Medical Malpractice Payments Account for Soaring Health Care Costs

Washington, D.C.– Medical malpractice payments in 2011 were at their lowest level on record by almost any measure, discrediting the claim that these payments are to blame for the skyrocketing cost of health care, a new Public Citizen report finds.

In the report, “Malpractice Payments Sunk to Record Low in 2011,” Public Citizen analyzed data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which tracks malpractice payments on behalf of doctors. The report found that the number of medical payments and the inflation-adjusted value of such payments were at their lowest levels since 1991, the earliest full year for which such data is available.

“Contrary to the promises of policymakers and leaders of physician groups who have spent the past two decades championing efforts to restrict patients’ legal rights, there is no evidence that patients receive any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report. “Instead, malpractice victims and ordinary patients end up absorbing significant costs for uncompensated medical errors.”

The report found that in 2011:

  • The number of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors (9,758 payments) was the lowest on record, having fallen for the eighth consecutive year;
  • The inflation-adjusted value of payments made on behalf of doctors ($3.2 billion) was the lowest on record. In actual dollars, payments have fallen for eight straight years and are at their lowest level since 1998;
  • The average size of medical malpractice payments (about $327,000) declined from previous years;
  • Four-fifths of medical malpractice awards compensated for death, catastrophic harm or serious permanent injuries – disproving the claim that medical malpractice litigation is “frivolous”;
  • Medical malpractice payments’ share of the nation’s health care cost was the lowest on record (just 0.12 percent of all national health care costs); and
  • Health care costs rose again amid the decline in medical malpractice litigation – debunking the claim that the litigation is tied to rising health care costs or that patients should expect dividends from reduced litigation;

The total costs for medical malpractice litigation for doctors and hospitals (as measured by liability insurance premiums paid) have fallen to their lowest level in two decades. They amounted to 0.36 percent of national health care expenditures in 2010, the most recent year for which such data is available.

There is no evidence that the decline in medical malpractice payments is due to safer medical care, the report said. Studies routinely conclude that there is a high prevalence of medical errors; for instance, 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.

In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of injuries (and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths) that major studies attribute annually to medical mistakes, fewer than 10,000 medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2011, demonstrating that the vast majority of patients injured by medical malpractice are not being compensated, the report found.

“When victims of malpractice do not receive compensation, their future medical costs must be borne by somebody: the victims themselves, their insurance companies or the taxpayers,” said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen. “The juxtaposition of declining medical malpractice payments and skyrocketing medical costs exposes bogus claims that reducing patients’ access to legal remedies will reduce costs. The only sensible response is for policymakers and physicians to dedicate themselves to pursuing patient safety to prevent these injuries and deaths with the same vigor with which they have previously sought to restrict patients’ legal rights.”

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