Healthy reform needed


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  • September 19, 2011

Massachusetts may soon adopt some medical malpractice reforms in an effort to rein in health care costs, but will they be anything close to what we need? A new report by the Pioneer Institute suggests that what’s on the table at the moment falls short.

A proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick, filed last February, would make an apology from a physician or hospital after a medical error is disclosed inadmissible in a malpractice lawsuit. And studies do indeed suggest that disclosure and an apology prevent many a lawsuit from being filed, which would hold down some costs to the health care system.

The bill also establishes a six-month cooling off period before a medical malpractice lawsuit could be filed, which could reduce the likelihood of legal action.

But as the Pioneer report indicates, there is a menu of options available to policy-makers as they consider medical liability reforms. The disclosure-and-apology approach “does nothing to address the direct cost of malpractice cases, in the short term.”

Patrick ignored calls for a cap on non-economic damages, for example, including pain and suffering. One study found states with such caps have 17.1 percent lower malpractice premiums than those states without caps.

Beacon Hill could also enact limits on attorneys’ fees and set a shorter statute of limitations for claims. The report floats other “nontraditional” reforms, too.

This is no throwaway issue. As the Pioneer report indicates, the American Medical Association considers Massachusetts a “crisis state” with respect to medical liability. Eight-three percent of Bay State physicians in one survey said they have practiced so-called “defensive medicine,” which drives up costs. So if the state’s leaders are serious about reining in health care costs, they can’t leave meaningful options on the table.