A recent editorial published by CNN delves into a critical issue that perennially lies underneath various policy making proposals at the local, state, and federal levels–the need to protect patient legal rights. Fortunately, we have not heard as much this election cycle about tort reform proposals as we have in the past. But it is critical not to assume this means that the issues are behind us. Not only do we need to fight for the rights of those who live in places where laws already severely limit their right to fair compensation following malpractice, but there are always new threats made by insurance companies and big medical interests to press for more changes.
The CNN editorial, written by the President of the American Association for Justice, points out that tens of thousands of patients are killed each and every year as a result of preventable errors. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) more are hurt unnecessarily as consequence of those mistakes. When taken as a form of injury, medical malpractice is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. The consequences are not only medical–there are very real financial losses. According to the editorial, every year nearly $27 billion is spent unnecessarily because of this negligence.
All discussion about changing the legal rights for patients and their families must keep those stats in mind. Unfortunately, the discussion often ignores those safety issues. We must keep bringing it up so that the real consequences of medical malpractice are part of the discussion.
As the editorial makes clear: “when no one is accountable, no one is safe.” There is a misguided idea that medical malpractice lawsuits are somehow a problem themselves, when instead they are simply a symptom of a medical system that has a long way to go before being as safe as possible. The obvious reality is that instead of focusing on taking away legal rights guaranteed by the Constitution, reformers should focus on eliminating the poor care. Yet, when those pushing for the laws are the very ones who stand to gain financially from legal immunity for certain medical malpractice losses, then there is little chance of honest assessments of the issue.
The editorial points out the Texas example as the prime explanation for how these laws simply do not do any good for community members. The state passed very severe tort reform laws (as amendments to their constitution) in 2003. The changes mostly impact those hurt by medical negligence who do not have obvious economic losses due to time away from the jobs–children and the elderly are most harmed.
So what did the state gain for taking away these legal rights? Nothing really. Studies have shown clearly that in the years after the passage of the laws the health care costs in Texas did not budge, nor were there any changes in the number of doctors. In addition, Texas currently ranks, by some estimates, as having the lowest quality of health care in the country.
Many independent groups, including the Government Accountability Office, note repeatedly that there are no significant medical cost savings to be had by taking away the rights of medical patients. No credible study has actually linked lawsuits to “defensive medicine.” Instead, those seeking to gain personally from these laws, prey on the struggles of community members with rising health care costs to convince them that these laws will make a difference. They won’t. We all need to stand arm and arm against these false arguments and downright dangerous policy proposals that do nothing more than help big interests at the costs of regular residents.
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