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Public Citizen Report: Medical Malpractice Payments Remain at Historic Low Despite Slight Uptick Last Year

Oct. 22, 2014

Public Citizen Report: Medical Malpractice Payments Remain at Historic Low Despite Slight Uptick Last Year

Value of Payments Was Second-Lowest in 15 Years; Findings Underscore Malpractice Is a Health Issue, not Economic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Medical malpractice payments remained at a historic low despite rising slightly last year, according to Public Citizen’s annual analysis of data published by the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The dollar value of malpractice payments in 2013 was the second lowest in the past 15 years.

The report also notes that patient safety experts have issued increasingly dire estimates on the number of avoidable errors occurring in hospitals even as the number of liability payments for such errors has declined. Most dramatically, the Journal of Patient Safety published a study in 2013 estimating the number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients at more than 400,000 per year with preventable serious harms 10- to 20-fold more common than lethal harms.

“Medical malpractice should be treated as a health issue, not an economic one,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “And the cure is not reducing access to justice for victims of malpractice, but eliminating avoidable medical errors and negligence.”

Both the number and cumulative value of medical malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors increased slightly in 2013, marking the first such increase in a decade. Meanwhile, medical liability insurance rates, which are not precisely tied to claims data and may lag behind payment trends, continued to decrease.

The number of payments made on behalf of doctors rose slightly, from 9,370 in 2012 to 9,677 in 2013, according to the report, “Medical Malpractice Payments Remained at Historic Low in 2013 Despite Slight Uptick.” The value of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors in 2013 was $3.3 billion, compared to $3.1 billion in 2012. Payments in 2013 accounted for about 0.11 percent of national health care costs, roughly the same as in 2012.

The report notes that both the number and value of medical malpractice payments have declined steadily since the early-2000s, when the American Medical Association (AMA) declared the liability climate in a dozen states to constitute a “crisis.” Even with the slight increase in 2013, the value of payments remained lower in both actual and inflation-adjusted dollars than for any year from 1999 to 2011.

“As the purported crisis over medical liability costs to doctors has receded, we are learning that the actual crisis over avoidable medical errors is worse than we ever knew,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The time has come for the AMA to exhibit as much concern over the tragedies stemming from avoidable medical errors as it has over medical liability insurance costs.”

Read the report.