Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What About Tort Reform?

Tort reform is getting lots of attention. It was brought up at Gary Peters' and Pete Hoekstra's town hall meetings yesterday. I don't know what either gentleman said in response, but I hope they pointed out that in 2004 the Congressional Budget Office pegged the costs of malpractice lawsuits at less than 2 percent. They also noted that “even a reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent in malpractice costs would lower health care costs by only about 0.4 percent to 0.5 percent, and the likely effect on health insurance premiums would be comparably small.”

Small savings add up and shouldn't be discounted, but if a doctor mistakenly amputates your wrong leg that's life changing. How do you put a price tag on something so horrific? And don't believe the hype about frivolous lawsuits. Health Beat reports the following facts from a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The great majority of patients who sustain a medical injury as a result of negligence do not sue.” Indeed, the New York Times reports, although “recent studies have found that one of every 100 hospital patients suffers negligent treatment, and that as many as 98,000 die each year as a result . . . only a small fraction of injured patients — perhaps 2 percent—press legal claims.
And it appears that doctors are paying high malpractice insurance rates in part because of a few bad apples:
“Just 1.1 percent of all doctors accounted for 30 percent of all malpractice payments made between 1990 and 2002, while only 5.2 percent of doctors were responsible for 55 percent of all payouts.” A very small group of doctors are losing or settling malpractice lawsuits, but they are losing big.

“Eighty percent of claims involved injuries that caused significant or major disability (39 percent and 15 percent, respectively) or death (26 percent).”
According to the Washington Independent, tort reform is unlikely to cut health care costs since studies show malpractice awards are not the big driver of skyrocketing costs, and Bloomberg reported that malpractice lawsuits are a red herring.
...annual jury awards and legal settlements involving doctors amounts to “a drop in the bucket” in a country that spends $2.3 trillion annually on health care, said Amitabh Chandra, a Harvard University economist. Chandra estimated the cost at $12 per person in the U.S.
Besides, as Barbara O'Brien of Mahablog blog points out, most tort laws are state laws, and tort reform is primarily a state-level issue; a great many of the "tort reforms" conservatives insist are necessary to bring down health care costs already have been enacted in most states, and in many states, malpractice suits have been significantly reduced; and the fact is, in recent years malpractice claims have dropped significantly, but health care costs continue to rise.

So why all the talk about tort reform? I suspect O'Brien hit on the real reason:
In the 1980s Karl Rove identified tort reform as a strategic wedge issue for Republicans, for two reasons. First, trial lawyers tend to be Democratic voters, and demonizing trial lawyers could help smear the Dems by association. Second, the industries pushing tort reform had a whole lot of money to give to campaigns.
Just once I wish Republicans would do what's best for people, not themselves or special interests. Tort reform may need to be tweaked at some point in the future, but our immediate need is to get people high-quality, affordable care while reforming the insurance industry. Enough with the misleading talk; it's time to take action.


K. said...

Tort "reform" is a total red herring, meaningless in the overall context of real reform. It essentially removes trial by jury to satisfy neocon ideology. I think we've had enough of that in Iraq -- no need to bring it home.

Stop by Citizen K. later today and pick up your Honest Scrap Award!

PrivatePigg said...

I'm a small-c conservative (and sometimes Republican) that is against tort reform. I just put up a post on the subject, too. Busy fighting my own party. Thanks for the information! I'm going to link you.

Lew Scannon said...

I suspect that the real reason for rising health insurance costs is all the money the health care industry has to pay to lobbyists to keep our fouled up system just as fouled up as it is, which means mucho dinero for them.

Mike Bryant said...

A number of very good points. It clearly is a product of the Bush/Rove mantra. Legal issues used to never be this partisan, but the rhetoric clearly did push lawyers on the fence the other way.

JollyRoger said...

The Rushpubliscums have no need to try to help anybody but themselves and the corporate interests who own them. They aren't going to be held accountable for anything that they do, so why sweat it? Just throw out a few talking points, stir up the inbreds, and wait for the payoffs to come rolling in. There's usually a little nookie in it for them, too.