Medical Malpractice Reform Won't Save a Huge Amount
side note: This is another story in response to the WSJ article we recently posted. While this author agrees tort reform is being stalled by the Democratic Party, he feels that the end result savings will be far smaller than Republicans promise. Do you agree, let us know in the comments below.
In an op-ed piece today in the Wall Street Journal, attorney/author Philip K. Howard argues that the Democrats are only posturing on the need for malpractice liability reform (aka tort reform). Their real concern, he says, is to protect trial lawyers who are reliable supporters of Democratic politicians.
Howard is right about the pilot project advanced by the White House, which would have little impact on malpractice reform. He also points out that a legislative proposal by Rep. Bart Gordon (R-TN), a Blue Dog Democrat, to fund pilots in several states was watered down by his colleagues, ostensibly to avoid offending the trial bar. Overall, he says, “what has unfolded so far [in Congress] is a series of vague pronouncements and token proposals.”
So far, I am with Howard. Congress has done little about tort reform, and Democrats’ link to the trial attorneys is undoubtedly one of the reasons. But while we do need a better and fairer liability system that would protect both physicians and patients, the amount by which tort reform would lower health costs is open to dispute.
Howard cites estimates by the AMA and other parties that “eliminating defensive medicine could save upwards of $200 billion in health-care costs annually.” To begin with, no reform legislation, no matter how effective, could eliminate defensive medicine entirely, since most physicians will always (and rightly) try to make sure that they don’t do anything or neglect anything that would invite a malpractice suit. But even if we assume that tort reform could save $200 billion, that would be only 8 percent of current health spending. And, according to some observers, the real number is much lower than that.
In a recent Health Affairs article, Henry J. Aaron and Paul B. Ginsburg, two of the country’s top health policy experts, write:
Evidence that malpractice litigation and its threat have much impact on the level of health spending is weak and confined to a few specialties. Evidence that it perceptibly raises the growth of health spending is almost nonexistent. The chief shortcoming of the malpractice dispute resolution system is not that some settlements are excessive, but that transaction costs are enormous. Litigation expenses and administrative overhead absorb roughly 60 percent of [liability insurance] premiums.