Source: Public Citizen Report -Congress Watch Division (Public Citizen is a national non-profit consumer organization with more than 300,000 members and supporters).
In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of annual avoidable adverse events (and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths) that major studies attribute to medical mistakes, only 9,758 medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2011. However, policymakers and leaders of physician groups have spent the past two decades championing efforts to restrict patients’ legal rights, calling for Tort Reform and arguing of a crisis. There is no evidence that patients have received any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies. Instead, the evidence suggests that litigation restrictions have suppressed meritorious claims, forcing malpractice victims and ordinary patients to absorb the costs of treating injuries caused by uncompensated medical errors.
Despite suggestions by those seeking to reduce patients’ legal rights that medical malpractice lawsuits are largely “frivolous,” the vast majority of payments compensate for extremely serious harms. 80% of the money paid for medical negligence in 2011 compensated victims or their surviving family members for harms defined by the NPDB as significant permanent injuries; major permanent injuries; quadriplegia, brain damage, or injuries requiring lifelong care; or death. The latter two categories (quadriplegia, brain damage, or injuries requiring lifelong care; and death) accounted for 44 percent of the dollars spent to compensate victims of medical malpractice.
Declines in Litigation Do Not Translate into Lower Costs for Consumer
Between 2000 and 2011, the value of medical malpractice payments fell 11.9 percent while healthcare spending nearly doubled, increasing 96.7 percent (both calculations in unadjusted dollars). These figures debunk claims that medical malpractice litigation is responsible for rising healthcare costs, as well as promises that patients should expect savings from litigation restrictions.
There Is No Evidence that the Decline in Medical Malpractice Payments Is Due to Safer Medical Care
For years, observers of healthcare safety issues referred to the 1998 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, “To Err Is Human,” for guidance on the prevalence of medical errors. That study concluded that 44,000 and 98,000 patients were dying every year because of avoidable medical errors. In 2010 and 2011, three major studies reached conclusions on medical errors at least as shocking as those in the IOM report. The administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), found that the number of adverse events could be 10 times greater than originally thought.
Comparing the well-recognized prevalence of medical errors with the relatively small numbers of malpractice payments leads to the inescapable conclusion that the overwhelming majority of medical errors do not lead to litigation. Harvard School of Health’s Michelle M. Mello and her co-authors in 2007 wrote in analysis of existing literature that only “2 to 3 percent of patients injured by negligence file malpractice claims … The findings of our analysis indicate that the overwhelming proportion of the costs of hospital medical injures are shifted to parties other than the hospital.”15
Uncompensated Medical Errors Are Costing Both Victims and Taxpayers Significantly
To put this figure in perspective, the total number of payments made in 2011 equaled only a little more than 1 percent of the number of Medicare patients that the Department of Health and Human Services estimates to suffer serious, avoidable injuries in a given year—and that’s just Medicare patients. This demonstrates that the vast majority of medical malpractice errors are not resulting in malpractice compensation payments for patients.
The juxtaposition of declining medical malpractice payments, skyrocketing medical costs, and consistent findings of rampant medical errors discredit the underlying promises of those who have campaigned to reduce patients’ access to legal remedies. The only sensible response is for policymakers and physicians to dedicate themselves to pursuing patient safety measures with the same vigor they have applied to limiting patients’ legal rights. That is a solution we could all live with.
The Lewis Law Firm has a long history of standing up for injured patients and their families. If you or a loved one have been the victim of physician or hospital malpractice, please contact the Lewis Law Firm for a FREE consultation and case review, today.
~Posted by: Gayle R. Lewis, Esquire