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Reducing malpractice means saving money

Today, Public Citizen joined with other consumer advocacy groups in a letter to the debt commission (PDF) condemning a dangerous proposal by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, Co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, to use “comprehensive medical malpractice liability reform to cap non-economic and punitive damages and make other changes in tort law” as a way to reduce the national debt and urging the body to remove it from its final report.

Patients’ legal rights continue to be a scapegoat in the public debate on solutions to the country’s skyrocketing health care costs.  However, the proof is in the pudding. When Public Citizen examined Texas’ experience with strict liability limits (PDF) since their adoption in 2003, we found that injured patients in Texas lost their access to the courts but the restrictions did not translate into health or cost benefits. Instead, the opposite has occurred. In Texas: the uninsured rate has increased, remaining the highest in the country; health insurance cost has more than doubled; spending increases for diagnostic testing (measured by per-patient Medicare reimbursements) have far exceeded the national average; and the cost of diagnostic testing in Texas (measured by per-patient Medicare reimbursements) has grown 50 percent faster than the national average.

Clearly, tort reform will not cut the fat.

To blame high costs on medical malpractice litigation is to ignore the facts. In 2008, the cost of medical malpractice liability fell to less than 0.6 percent of the $2.1 trillion in total nation health care costs as measured in 2006. In fact, there are nearly 10 times as many injuries caused by medical negligence (PDF) as there are malpractice claims.

If the debt commission really wants to slice the deficit, they will reject this recommendation by the co-chairs and follow the money.

Medical errors are the real crisis for health care costs. The Institute of Medicine estimated in 1999 that medical errors cost an estimated $17 billion to $29 billion annually for lost income, lost household production, disability and health care costs. Adjusted for inflation, these numbers are $22.1 billion to $37.7 billion today.

The recommendations of the co-chairs are just that, recommendations. Therefore, we urge the members of the commission to cut the fat where it counts, by removing this dangerous recommendation and inserting the solution that will save lives and costs: reducing the malpractice.

Christine Hines is the consumer and civil justice counsel for Public Citizen.