KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Malpractice Reform In Spotlight, Earns Mixed Reviews

Medical malpractice reform has gained traction with Democrats after President Obama raised the issue in a speech to Congress earlier this month, despite the relatively meager savings experts say it could produce, the Indianapolis Star reports: "Republican lawmakers have long touted federal tort reform as way to bring down health-care costs. Democrats are coming around to the same position in response to what they've heard from constituents. ... President Barack Obama recently raised the issue as an olive branch to Republicans, directing the Department of Health and Human Services to spend $25 million to help states and health-care systems try alternative methods of resolving malpractice allegations."

However, "studies show that limiting such awards slows growth in the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors. But lower malpractice insurance rates would have a 'very modest' impact on doctors' fees and would reduce total health-care spending by less than 0.2 percent, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office." Doctors may practice higher-cost medicine for lots of reasons other than preventing lawsuits, such as increasing revenues and satisfying patient demands (Groppe, 9/20).

In California, a 34-year-old medical malpractice law limits awards for "pain and suffering" to $250,000, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. But, "California's decades-long experience with malpractice reform is either a national model or cautionary tale - depending on who you talk to." Doctors and insurers say the law has helped hold down their costs. But patients say it's nightmarish and that there is "no justice." Because of the low awards, patients may struggle just to find an attorney willing to take on their cases.

"A 2004 Rand Corp. study found the law has cut payments to plaintiffs who win at trial by 30 percent. The study, based on an examination of cases between 1995 and 1999, found that plaintiffs received about 15 percent less overall due to limits on attorney fees. Nicholas Pace, a researcher with the Rand Corp. who led the study, said there hasn't been enough unbiased research conducted to determine whether California's medical malpractice law has had a direct impact on health care costs in the state. 'It's hard to make a strong persuasive link between medical malpractice reform and significantly changing the amount consumers pay' he said" (Colliver, 9/21).

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