April 22, 2003

Doctors in the District of Columbia Do Not Face a "Crisis" in Medical Malpractice Insurance Costs, Public Citizen Report Shows

Mayor Williams, City Council Would Harm Patients If They Opt to Limit Legal Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Contrary to claims made by doctors’ groups, hospitals and their political allies, physicians in the District of Columbia are not facing a "crisis" in medical malpractice insurance rates caused by a rash of malpractice lawsuits, according to a Public Citizen report released today. Proposals being contemplated by Mayor Anthony Williams would severely limit patients’ legal rights and have harmful results.

The "crisis of major proportions" predicted by the Medical Society of the District of Columbia is not borne out by the evidence, the report shows. Data from government and private sources show that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed in the District has declined dramatically in recent years, and that, as a group, District health care providers have seen a significant decrease in malpractice insurance costs.

Nevertheless, Mayor Williams appears sympathetic to the claims of the Medical Society and has suggested that he might urge lawmakers to consider draconian changes to District tort laws. Those changes could include a $250,000 cap on malpractice payouts for patients’ pain and suffering, also known as non-economic damages.

"Capping damages will only hurt those who have been most severely injured by health care provider negligence," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "When District officials look beyond the scare tactics of the Medical Society, we hope they will see what a mistake damage caps and other limits on patients’ legal rights would be."

City Council members Harold Brazil and Adrian Fenty and patient advocacy groups joined Public Citizen at a press conference at which Public Citizen released its report, Medical Misdiagnosis in Washington, D.C.: Evidence Against Proposals to Restrict Compensation to Malpractice Victims. (Click here to view.)

According to the report:

  • The number of malpractice lawsuits filed in D.C. courts is 24 percent lower than it was a decade ago. In 1992, 209 medical malpractice lawsuits were filed compared to 158 in 2002.
  • As a group, District health care providers have seen a significant decrease in the medical malpractice premiums they pay. According to insurance industry data, malpractice premiums in the District decreased by 32 percent from 1992 to 2001, a period when costs of medical care increased by 47 percent nationally.
  • Total spending on health care in the District of Columbia was $4.3 billion in 1998 (the last year for which government data is available). In comparison, D.C. health care providers paid $31.8 million in malpractice insurance premiums – equivalent to only 0.72 percent of all the money spent on health care in Washington, D.C., that year.
  • The cost of medical negligence and errors to Washington, D.C., patients and consumers is considerable. Based on findings by the Institute of Medicine, Public Citizen estimates that there are 89 to 199 deaths in Washington each year due to preventable medical errors, costing residents, families and communities $35 million to $59 million.
  • Health plans included under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, which insures a large number of District residents, have raised their average health insurance premiums 67.5 percent over the last five years. In comparison, the District’s leading malpractice insurer, NCRIC, increased its rates only 26 percent during the same period. Medical costs typically are the largest share of medical malpractice awards.
  • The District has the highest physician-to-population ratio in the country. According to American Medical Association data, the District has 60 percent more doctors per 100,000 population than the second-ranked state, Massachusetts.
  • Insurance industry economics, not jury awards, have led to increased malpractice insurance rates in other parts of the country. When the economy is strong and investment returns are high, rates stay at modest levels; spikes occur when the economy falters. There is no evidence that caps on damages would lower rates, which even insurance companies and their lobbyists have acknowledged.

"Given the data, it’s clear that there is little – if any – malpractice insurance problem in the District," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. "Proposals to limit patients’ legal rights are simply an effort to curry favor with well-heeled special interest groups, not improve the quality of health care in Washington."

D.C. Council Member At Large Harold Brazil noted at the news conference that, "Arbitrary caps penalize innocent victims of medical malpractice and other personal injury."

Sam Jordan, director of Health Care Now!, who also attended the news conference, said. "The cost of malpractice premiums is a function of insurance company pricing policy. Costs rise when the economy falters or when the insurer decides to ‘see what the market will bear.’"

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