Independent Report Shows Hypocrisy of Attacks on Medical Malpractice Claims

When the conversation turns to public policy, and how to protect individual rights, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Public Citizen calls itself “the people’s voice.” This month it has been particularly articulate on the state of medical malpractice lawsuits and claims. They’re low, and there is no reason to cut back on patients’ rights to bring claims for preventable injuries.

The group’s new report concluded that although medical malpractice payments rose slightly last year, payouts remained at an historic low. Public Citizen analyzed data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) to show that the dollar value of malpractice payments in 2013 was the second lowest in the last 15 years.

Confirming what we’ve shown in previous blogs, the analysis supports that while the number of avoidable errors occurring in hospitals remains disturbingly high, liability payments for these errors has declined.

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

But many states continue to cap the amount harmed patients may receive in a malpractice judgment, and take other steps to make it harder to sue doctors, like the recent wave of laws in some southern states to make it almost impossible to sue for malpractice in emergency rooms. (A new study on those states finds no evidence that the immunity laws have had any benefit in rolling back the ordering of wasteful and unnecessary tests by ER doctors who are supposedly terrified of being sued.)

In the Public Citizen study, although both the number and the cumulative value of medical malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors increased in 2013, the amounts were small, and it’s the first time in a decade we’ve seen such an increase.

At the same time, however, medical liability insurance rates dropped.

According to the report:

  • The number of payments made on behalf of doctors rose slightly, from 9,370 in 2012 to 9,677 in 2013.
  • The value of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors in 2013 was $3.3 billion; in 2012, it was $3.1 billion.
  • Payments in 2013 accounted for about 0.11% of U.S. health-care costs, roughly the same as in 2012.

The number and value of medical malpractice payments have declined steadily for more than a decade, since, as Public Citizen notes, the American Medical Association (AMA) deemed the liability climate in a dozen states a “crisis.” If lower cost for malpractice insurance coupled with diminishing malpractice awards constitutes a “crisis,” what in the world do you call hundreds of thousands of preventable medical errors every year?

“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,” Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division said in the statement. “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 full Public Citizen report here.

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