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Separating Medical Malpractice Reform Myth from Health Care Debate

As thousands of Americans descended on the National Mall this past Saturday to protest President Barack Obamas health care agenda, the rallying cry for tort reform was again a popular theme. Who can forget the so-called medical malpractice crisis in New Jersey back in 2004, when hundreds of doctors in their white coats picketed outside the Statehouse in Trenton. Then, as now, the goal was caps on non-economic damages as a proposed solution to out of control health care costs. The prior effort by doctors towards those restrictions failed for the same reason that it should be off the table in the present health care debate- there is no evidence that medical malpractice damages are a significant factor in health care costs.

A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer analyzed the model of tort reform established by the state of Missouri. In 2005, the Missouri legislature approved caps on non-economic damages in the amount of $350,000 per defendant. That makes Missouri one of over two dozen states that have enacted some type of medical malpractice tort reform. So, four years later, have health care costs in Missouri decreased? In a word- no. Doctors instead point to decreases in their medical malpractice insurance premiums as the positive of change. But even that attempted rationalization of cause and effect is unsupported by the insurance industrys own empirical data. A recent study by Wellpoint, an insurer, concluded that while tort reform lowers insurance premiums, medical malpractice is not currently driving the rate of increase.

The myth of medical malpractice driving up health care costs is also unsupported by government data. In 2004, a study by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office found that Malpractice costs account for less than 2 percent of health care spending.

Why is debunking the tort reformers position so important? Because the Institute of Medicine estimates that 98,000 people die each year in the US from preventable medical errors. The staggering number does not even include the countless other people who are injured by medical errors. Medical malpractice has no place in the present health care debate. The Presidents plan is about making sure that every American has access to quality, low-cost health care, not about limiting the legal rights of innocent patients harmed by medical negligence.