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Medical Malpractice Payments Fell to Lowest Level on Record in 2012

Continued Decline Debunks Theory That Litigation Is to Blame for Soaring Health Care Costs

August 7, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Medical malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors were at their lowest level on record in 2012, a new Public Citizen report finds.

In the report, “No Correlation: Continued Decrease in Medical Malpractice Payments Debunks Theory That Litigation Is to Blame for Soaring Medical Costs,” Public Citizen analyzed data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which has tracked malpractice payments since the fall of 1990.

“We now have a decade’s worth of data debunking the litigation canard,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and the report’s author. “Policymakers need to focus on reducing medical errors, not reducing accountability for medical errors.”

The report found that in 2012:

- The number of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors (9,379) was the lowest on record, falling for the ninth consecutive year;

- The value of payments made on behalf of doctors ($3.1 billion) was the lowest on record if adjusted for inflation. In unadjusted dollars, payments fell for the ninth straight year and were at their lowest level since 1998;

- More than four-fifths of medical malpractice awards compensated for death, catastrophic harm or serious permanent injuries – countering the claim that medical malpractice litigation is “frivolous”;

- Medical malpractice payments’ share of the nation’s health care bill was the lowest on record, falling to about one-tenth of 1 percent (0.11 percent) of national health care costs;

- Medical liability insurance premiums, a broad measure that takes into account defense litigation costs and other factors as well as actual payments, fell to 0.36 of 1 percent of health care costs, the lowest level in the past decade.

The facts surrounding the prevalence of medical malpractice litigation are important for several reasons, the report contends. Medical malpractice has been singled out by many in Congress as the culprit for rising health care costs. For instance, during the health care reform debate, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called medical malpractice the “biggest cost driver” in medicine. Republicans in Congress have made it a perennial priority to pass legislation that would restrict patients’ ability to seek redress in court.

“The facts clearly and obviously refute the contentions put forth by Boehner and others that malpractice litigation significantly influences health care costs. Medical malpractice payments continue to fall and health care costs continue to rise. It doesn’t take a math whiz to determine that they are not correlated,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

The new report finds that since 2003, medical malpractice payments have fallen 28.8 percent, yet national health care costs are up 58.2 percent. If health care costs paralleled litigation trends during the past decade, the nation’s health care bill in 2012 would have been $1.3 trillion. Instead, it was $2.8 trillion.

The reduction in litigation is most likely due to state laws that have reduced patients’ legal rights rather than it is to improvements in medical care, the report said. Studies in recent years have found that between 1-in-4 and 1-in-7 hospital patients suffer adverse events, which are defined as undesirable and unanticipated developments that cause death or serious injury.

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