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Georgia Doctors Misdiagnose Malpractice Insurance “Crisis” – Spike Not Caused by Patient Lawsuits, Public Citizen Report Shows

March 31, 2004

Georgia Doctors Misdiagnose Malpractice Insurance “Crisis”
– Spike Not Caused by Patient Lawsuits, Public Citizen Report Shows

Number of Doctors in State Increases and Median Payouts to Victims Decline, Contradicting Arguments for Caps on Medical Malpractice Awards

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Georgia’s doctors and their political allies have misdiagnosed the cause of recent, temporary spikes in malpractice insurance rates – and they are prescribing legal changes that will penalize patients without increasing the affordability of malpractice coverage or the quality of medical care in their state, according to a Public Citizen report released today.

Government data and other reliable information show that the overall number of doctors has been increasing and the median payout in medical malpractice cases has been decreasing in Georgia in recent years. These statistics and other data in the report contradict claims being made by the doctors’ lobby as the Legislature debates a draconian $250,000 cap on non-economic damages paid to the victims of medical malpractice.

Among the study’s findings: The number of medical malpractice payouts made per 100 Georgia doctors has remained nearly flat since 1997, and a trend in the Atlanta area shows a dramatic decrease in jury verdicts in favor of malpractice plaintiffs. Again, these findings deflate the reckless rhetoric of doctors and lobbyists who allege that malpractice payouts have become more common because patients are lining up to play a “lawsuit lottery.”

“Nobody likes to pay more for their insurance, but Georgia doctors are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction,” said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and an author of the study. “Medical leaders and lawmakers are blaming patient lawsuits for a so-called malpractice ‘crisis’ when all evidence shows that the legal system has nothing to do with this short-term problem.”

Click here to read the 29-page report, Medical Misdiagnosis in Georgia: Challenging the Medical Malpractice Claims of the Doctors’ Lobby.

Major findings about Georgia in the report include:

  • There were 38 percent more licensed physicians practicing in Georgia in 2003 than there were in 1994, according to the Composite State Board of Medical Examiners, refuting claims that medical malpractice costs are driving doctors to quit their practices or leave the state. Moreover, from 2001 to 2003 – the height of the so-called “crisis” – the number of physicians seeking licenses in the state jumped 36.3 percent.
  • The median amount paid to a victim of medical malpractice in Georgia declined by a third from 1998 to 2003, when adjusted for medical services inflation. Based on statistics from the federal National Practitioner Data Bank, the median payment to injured patients declined from $175,000 to $116,841 – or 33.2 percent – over this five-year period. Even without adjusting for medical services inflation, the median malpractice payout in Georgia declined from $175,000 in 1998 to $145,000 in 2003 – a drop of 17.1 percent.
  • The number of medical malpractice payouts per 100 Georgia doctors remained nearly flat from 1997 to 2003. In 1997, there were 254 malpractice payouts on behalf of Georgia doctors, which represented 1.7 payouts per 100 doctors. In 2003, there were 318 payouts, which represented 1.8 payouts per 100 doctors.
  • Georgia Trial Reporter data for the Atlanta area show only two verdicts in favor of medical malpractice plaintiffs during 2003 – the lowest total since 1988, the first year for which data were available. In 2002, there were only five plaintiff verdicts, the least since 1990. While this data is not comprehensive and does not represent statewide totals, it does shed light on medical malpractice verdict trends in Georgia’s most populous region.
  • Measured in 1998 dollars, Georgia health care providers paid $169.6 million for malpractice coverage in 2002, compared to $177.4 million in 1998, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). This represents a 4.4 percent decrease.
  • According to the federal Medicare program, Georgia doctors spend an average of only 3.6 percent of their practice incomes on malpractice insurance, compared to a nationwide average of 3.9 percent. This means Georgia doctors pay 7.7 percent less than the national average. Moreover, the Medicare actuary calculates that doctors nationwide spend an average of 52.5 percent of their practice incomes on their own salaries and 30.8 percent on such overhead as office payroll and rent.

In February, Public Citizen issued a companion report that documented deficiencies in the quality of Georgia’s medical care and found a lack of accountability in the state’s health care system. Read the report, Increasing Doctor Accountability & Patient Safety: Solving Georgia’s Medical Malpractice ‘Crisis.