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As GOP Congress Prepares to Further Harm Medical Malpractice Victims, Public Citizen Report Refutes Claim That Limiting Medical Malpractice Liability Will Reduce Health Care Costs

Feb. 28, 2017

As GOP Congress Prepares to Further Harm Medical Malpractice Victims, Public Citizen Report Refutes Claim That Limiting Medical Malpractice Liability Will Reduce Health Care Costs

Malpractice Payments and Liability Premiums Have Fallen Steadily Over Past Decade While Health Care Costs Have Soared; Epidemic of Medical Errors Remains Unaddressed

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Costs relating to medical liability are tiny in the scope of national health care costs and are declining, according to new Public Citizen report (PDF) released today.

The report comes as the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee prepares to vote today to impose caps on damages for medical malpractice and create other liability shields for the health care industry. The legislation ostensibly is based on the assumption that capping damages will reduce health care costs. Capping damages harms patients who already have been severely harmed by doctor error, including errors causing quadriplegia or brain damage.

Public Citizen’s report (PDF), “The Medical Malpractice Scapegoat,” shows the assumptions that limiting liability would reduce costs are wrong. For instance:

  • The number of malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors in 2015 was the lowest since the government began tracking the information a quarter century ago;
  • The cumulative value of such payments was lower in 2015 than at the end of the Clinton administration and lower than during any year in the George W. Bush administration; and
  • Medical liability insurance premiums paid by doctors and hospitals have fallen for nine straight years and were lower in 2015 than in any year since 2003, the earliest year for which Public Citizen was able to obtain this information.

“Proposals to shield providers from liability are nothing but a giveaway to industry,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Members supporting this bill would further harm those who are suffering from doctors’ mistakes and abandon the GOP’s supposedly unwavering commitment to state’s rights.”

Those who blame medical malpractice liability for rising health care costs often invoke the concept of “defensive medicine” — the idea that doctors may perform unnecessary tests and procedures to protect themselves against potential legal claims. But claims that defensive medicine is driving costs higher also crumble under scrutiny. The vast majority of studies on defensive medicine find that it results in small or nonexistent additional costs.

The juxtaposition between steadily rising health care costs and declining liability costs further undercuts the premise that defensive medicine is driving the nation’s health care bill up, Public Citizen maintains.

Criticisms of the medical liability system usually are founded on an assumption that a high percentage of cases are not merited. But in reality, numerous findings show that serious injuries and deaths caused by medical errors dwarf the number of payments for harms caused by medical negligence.

Well-respected studies over the past 20 years have concluded that avoidable errors kill anywhere from 44,000 to 400,000 people a year. In contrast, an average of fewer than 13,000 malpractice payments a year have been made on behalf of doctors over the past quarter century.

Public Citizen’s report documents that accountability from the civil justice system has spurred quality improvements that have reduced litigation and saved lives. For instance, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center undertook an obstetrics safety initiative at the beginning of the last decade. The hospital’s obstetrics-related liability payments subsequently declined by 99 percent.

“Lawmakers who are concerned with the well-being of their constituents should concentrate on policies to address the epidemic of injuries and fatalities due to medical errors, and ignore calls to limit providers’ accountability,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report.

Read the report (PDF).