Health care reform is constantly in the news, and some policymakers have promoted the idea that medical malpractice claims are partly to blame for the increasing cost of health care, but a new study says that is not the case.
Public Citizen, a national, non-profit consumer advocacy group, evaluated the data of the federal government's National Practitioner Data Bank and found that medical malpractice payments for 2011 were at record low and had fallen for eight consecutive years. Further, claims in 2011 were at the lowest they have been since 1991, the first year that data on the topic was available.
Public Citizen's consumer and civil justice counsel, Christine Hines, stated that the combination of declining medical malpractice claims and rising health care costs debunks the idea that curbing patients' legal rights will decrease overall medical costs. She went on to say that "when victims of malpractice do not receive compensation, their future medical costs must be borne by somebody: the victims themselves, their insurance companies or the taxpayers."
Some of Public Citizen's specific findings for 2011 include:
· The typical award in medical malpractice cases, approximately $327,00, declined from previous years
· Both the amount and inflation-adjusted worth of malpractice claims made on behalf of doctors were the lowest on record
· The share of national health care costs that account for malpractice claims was the also the lowest on record, at 0.12 percent of all costs
· Assertions that most medical malpractice claims are frivolous was proven false by the fact that four-fifths of the compensation was for catastrophic injury, serious permanent injuries or death
In addition, Public Citizen concluded that the decrease in medical malpractice claims was not due to safer medical conditions. Indeed, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services discovered that more than 700,000 Medicare patients endure serious harm from avoidable medical errors annually, and that for $80,000 of those patients, the injuries prove fatal.
As the debate over the right way to overhaul health care and its costs continues, it seems fair to stop targeting patients' access to medical malpractice claims as one of the causes.