The most recognizable argument made in public policy debates about “tort reform” laws is the supposed connections between medical malpractice liability and medical costs. The reason that proponents make this claim is obvious: it moves public opinion.
Few people expect to be affected by a medical error, but everyone pays for medical care at some time or another. Therefore, it is a persuasive argument to claim that in order to help everyone by lowering medical costs we need to take away rights from a smaller group–those hurt by medical malpractice. The argument seems to go straight to everyone’s pocketbook. That logic has swayed many to support tort reform laws.
There is only one problem. The argument is not at all true.
Study after study repeatedly shows that there is no correlation between medical malpractice lawsuits and the rise of medical costs. Those making arguments to the contrary are simply using the public’s unfamiliarity with the truth in order to support their warped, self-interested political goals.
Public Citizen Report
Recently, the national non-profit group Public Citizen released a new report clearly outlining the falsity of the argument that litigation is to blame for the steep rise in medical costs in recent decades. A copy of the full report can be viewed online at no cost.
For the past ten years, or more, many elected officials have claimed that the only way to curb medical prices in the U.S. was to limit the rights of those affected by medical errors. As the report points out, as recently as 2010 the current Speaker of the House claimed the “biggest cost driver” in healthcare was “medical malpractice and the defensive medicine that doctors practice.”
While the Speaker’s pronouncements did not lead to federal tort reform litigation, similar arguments have vastly shaped the law in dozens of states. Right now at least 30 states have “damage caps” in place which arbitrarily limit the recovery of medical malpractice plaintiffs, regardless of their injuries. Fortunately, Illinois’s own damage cap law was struck down as unconstitutional several years ago.
Yet, as a result of the constant attack on the civil justice system, the actual payments to medical error victims has decreased. Total medical malpractice payouts nationwide have decreased steadily for the past decade. They are now at their lowest total on record.
So what has all of these decreased support for medical malpractice victims achieved for the public good? Have health care costs decreased as proponents of these laws always claimed?
All told, medical malpractice payouts decreased by nearly 30% in the last ten years. In that same time span the overall money spent on healthcare in the U.S. has increased by nearly 60%! Far from leading to some vast improvement national healthcare payments, the attack on the civil justice system has done nothing for the public good.
This basic argument and the data backing it up is simply irrefutable. The next time you hear a public official or other pontificating about the need to cut back on litigation to save on medical costs, kindly remind them that the argument has absolutely zero grounding in fact.
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