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Kentucky Doctors Not Facing a Medical Malpractice Insurance Crisis, Public Citizen Report Shows

Feb. 4, 2004

Kentucky Doctors Not Facing a Medical Malpractice Insurance Crisis, Public Citizen Report Shows

Biggest Health Problem Is the 4.7 Percent of Kentucky Doctors Who Are Responsible for 50 Percent of Medical Malpractice Payouts to Injured Patients

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Contrary to claims by the Kentucky Medical Association and its allies in the legislature, physicians in Kentucky are not facing a “crisis” in medical malpractice insurance rates caused by a rash of patient lawsuits and skyrocketing jury awards, according to a Public Citizen report released today.

Data from government sources show that in recent years the total amount paid for medical malpractice insurance by the state’s health care providers has declined when adjusted for inflation, and the median amount of malpractice payouts was significantly lower in 2002 than it was in 1995.

These findings stand in stark contrast to claims made by the lobbyists for Kentucky doctors – claims that are being used to justify a state constitutional amendment that would authorize limits as low as $250,000 on the amount injured patients can receive in non-economic damages, also known as “pain and suffering.” According to the Public Citizen report, such “caps” on damages do little to reduce the cost of insurance to doctors, while limiting a patient’s ability to hold a health care provider fully accountable for negligence.

The study’s most dramatic finding is that just 4.7 percent of Kentucky’s doctors have been responsible for half (49.9 percent) of all malpractice payouts to patients since 1990, when the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) began collecting such information. These 411 doctors each have made at least two payouts. Conversely, 83.3 percent of Kentucky’s doctors have never made a malpractice payout.

“Kentucky does not have a problem with medical malpractice lawsuits,” said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and an author of the study. “Kentucky residents need to look beyond the scare tactics of the American Medical Association and the Kentucky Medical Association and demand solutions that will improve the quality of medical care.”

Major findings in the 48-page report, The Facts About Medical Malpractice in Kentucky, is available include:

  • The total dollar amount of malpractice payouts in Kentucky declined 4.1 percent from 1995 to 2002, when adjusted for inflation. When measured in 1995 dollars, total malpractice payouts to injured patients dropped from $38.5 million in 1995 to $36.9 million in 2002.
  • The median amount paid out in 2002 was only half of what it was in 1995. During those seven years the median payout dropped from $92,500 to $47,500. (This large decrease occurred partly because a single physician made 76 payouts averaging $12,467 each.)
  • Million-dollar malpractice payouts have been infrequent. There were only five payouts exceeding $1 million in 2002, compared with six such payouts in 1995. The average number of payouts of $1 million or more during the past eight years has been just 3.2 annually.
  • Claims about doctors abandoning Kentucky are contradicted by official data. Despite claims by the Kentucky Medical Association that 819 doctors left the state during 2001 and 2002, official statistics show a decrease of only 19 doctors for that two-year period – a decline that was felt in urban areas, not rural counties. In addition, Kentucky’s ratio of doctors-to-residents has grown at a rate exceeding that of Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee – including some states that impose malpractice caps.
  • The cost of medical negligence and errors to Kentucky patients and consumers is considerable. Based on findings by the Institute of Medicine, Public Citizen estimates that there are 632 to 1,407 hospital deaths in Kentucky each year due to preventable medical errors – costing residents, families and communities $244 million to $416 million each year. This is far below the annual $81.8 million cost of medical malpractice insurance to Kentucky’s health care providers.
  • Doctors with repeated malpractice claims against them suffer few consequences. Only 12 percent of Kentucky doctors (17 of 141) who made three or more malpractice payouts since 1990 were disciplined by the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure. And only 20 percent (11 of 55) who made four or more malpractice payouts were disciplined.
  • On average, medical malpractice insurance comprises only 2.8 percent of a Kentucky doctor’s income.
  • A cap of $250,000 on non-economic awards probably would have affected only 8.4 percent or fewer of the 2002 malpractice payouts in Kentucky. This is a very small universe of cases that make it unlikely that a draconian cap of $250,000 would affect insurance rates.