Dec. 20, 2002

Florida Patients Face Crisis in Medical Errors, National Consumer Advocate Tells Task Force on Medical Malpractice Insurance Rates

State Should Adopt New Patient Protections, Not Restrict Rights to Sue, Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen Says

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Doctors, insurers and their political allies have mounted a massive disinformation campaign in Florida and elsewhere, attempting to convince lawmakers and the public that the way to address rising medical malpractice insurance rates is to drastically curtail victims’ rights in lawsuits, rather than reduce medical errors and reform the pricing practices of the insurance industry, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told members of Gov. Jeb Bush’s task force on medical malpractice today. Their solution would do nothing to address the causes of the crisis: bottom-line business decisions by insurance companies and an alarming number of preventable medical errors, many of them committed by a small percentage of practicing doctors.

Claybrook’s testimony noted that based on federal Institute of Medicine (IOM) data, medical malpractice results in 2,400 – 5,400 deaths in Florida each year and $935 million to $1.6 billion in costs resulting from disability, health care and lost income. At the same time, the annual cost of Florida physicians’ medical malpractice premiums is only about $500 million, insurance industry data show.

Rather than placing draconian restrictions on the rights of victims of medical errors, the state of Florida should implement vital patient safety measures that would significantly reduce the number of medical errors – and consequently malpractice claims, Claybrook said. Florida also must address the root cause of the premium increases: rate manipulations by insurance companies to compensate for poor investment returns when the stock market slowed after the 1990s boom. Further, the Florida Board of Medicine must be a better watchdog of doctors.

"Rising insurance rates have nothing to do with lawsuits but everything to do with the economics of the insurance industry," said Claybrook. "Patients severely injured by doctor malpractice should not be made to suffer even more harm by the small number of bad doctors who commit most malpractice and the bottom-line business practices of insurers."

Highlights of Claybrook’s testimony include:

  • Nationally, the IOM found in 1999 that up to 98,000 Americans die in hospitals each year due to preventable medical errors. These deaths due to preventable adverse events exceed the deaths attributable to motor vehicle accidents (43,458), breast cancer (42,297) and AIDS (16,516) combined. But the amount devoted to saving American lives is vastly disproportionate. The federal government spends $655 million on breast cancer prevention, $128 million on auto safety and $3.5 billion on AIDS prevention. Only $55 million has been committed this year, for the first time, to improving patient safety. The number of Floridians who will die of breast cancer (2,600), AIDS (1,809) and homicides (980) combined matches the upper estimate of deaths (5,400) that occur in Florida each year due to medical malpractice.
  • The number of medical errors reported by Florida hospitals exceeds the number of medical malpractice claims filed each year by 6 to 1.
  • Only 6 percent of Florida doctors are responsible for half the malpractice claims.

A 1999 report by the IOM presented a blueprint for reducing medical errors and improving the quality of care in hospitals. The plan includes:

  • Eliminating errors caused by treatment of the wrong body part or the wrong patient, and performing the wrong procedure: In 2001, the Florida health care agency reported nine incidents of surgery performed on the wrong patient, 16 incidents where the wrong procedure was performed and 54 incidents where surgery was performed on the wrong site. Simply mandating that surgeons mark the correct site for surgery on a patient with a permanent marker could prevent many such accidents.
  • Addressing the shortage of nurses: Recent studies have shown that patients in hospitals where nurses have heavy workloads have a higher risk of dying. The Florida Hospital Association estimates that the state will need 34,000 more nurses by 2006. Gov. Bush has signed legislation to simplify the process for out-of-state nurses to begin working in Florida and to increase funding for nursing education, but more must be done.

Claybrook told the task force that Florida’s medical board has been falling short of its responsibility to police doctors’ performance in the state. There are 24 Florida doctors in the National Practitioner Data Bank who have paid 10 or more medical malpractice judgments, but 12 of those doctors have never been disciplined by the board. In fact, only 36 percent of Florida’s disciplinary actions in 2001 were serious – that is involving license revocation, suspension, surrender or probation. When compared with the rest of the country, only two states were worse in that regard, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

"It would be a travesty of justice for this task force to take away patients’ legal rights in the name of protecting insurance company profits and doctors’ income," Claybrook said in her statement. "The fact is that the legal system is all Floridians have to ensure just compensation for injury and to force improvements in patient safety, as the regulatory system is not doing the job here or in most places across the country. Limiting legal rights will not solve the problem, because they are not the cause."

Click here to view a copy of Claybrook’s statement on the Web.

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