Medical Malpractice Crisis Is Not in Dollars Paid to Victims, but in Number of Errors

A new report from Public Citizen puts the lie to claims that doctors and hospitals are burdened by excessive payments to malpractice victims. The report finds that as health care costs have soared, the total payments to victims of preventable errors has continued to decline.

The consumer advocacy group concludes that Congress should focus on ways to cut medical errors, not to reduce the rights of patients to be compensated for injuries.

According to Public Citizen, fewer medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009 than any year on record, according to its study of the National Practitioner Data Bank numbers.

The value of malpractice payments in actual (unadjusted) dollars was the lowest since 1999. Adjusted for inflation, payments were at their lowest since 1992. Last year was the fifth consecutive year the number of payments has fallen and the sixth straight year in which the value of payments has fallen. In contrast, U.S. health care costs have increased every year since 1965, the earliest year for which such data exist.

A total of 10,772 payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009, totaling $3.49 billion. That figure equals 0.14 of one percent of the Centers for Medicare and Medcaid Services estimated $2.5 trillion in overall U.S. health care spending for 2009.

As Public Citizen’s report notes, numerous studies have found that injuries and deaths caused by medical errors dwarf the number of actual medical malpractice payments. For example, the Institute of Medicine found in 1999 that 44,000 to 98,000 people die every year due to avoidable errors. Subsequent studies have estimated even higher casualty levels.

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