Is malpractice reform good for patients?

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  • February 28, 2011

The medical malpractice reform bill Sens. Harry Brown, Tom Apodaca and I have introduced in the state Senate will drive down your health care costs and lure some of the country’s brightest doctors to North Carolina. It will give doctors a desperately needed safeguard against unpredictable and unfair lawsuits that drive insurance costs sky high. That security will lower insurance premiums, making health care more affordable. It will make health care more accessible for those who can’t afford it. And it will end the excessive awards lawyers win for “pain and suffering,” and other damages that can’t be measured. That’s why we’re joining more than 25 other states that have passed similar laws to increase access to health care by reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits. Our bill – Senate Bill 33 – has support from Republicans and Democrats. Patients still can recover all medical costs and lost earnings, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars for pain and suffering and other “noneconomic damages” under our bill. Yet trial lawyers, other interest groups and the politicians they influence most are balking at reform. Fewer lawsuits and lower jury awards will mean less money in trial lawyers’ pockets. But it will mean more money in yours. Because of the efforts of trial lawyers, doctors are fleeing North Carolina to other states, where they can practice without the threat of excessive lawsuits. It’s especially true of specialists, such as obstetricians. Our system already is overburdened – we can’t afford to sit back and watch trial lawyers win big while citizens struggle to find quality doctors to treat them. Studies have shown three-fourths of doctors practice unnecessary defensive medicine to deter frivolous lawsuits. They see fewer patients, and you wait longer for treatment. It also costs doctors and insurance companies more money, which ultimately costs you, the taxpayers. It’s one of the hidden – but highest – costs in our country’s medical system. The American Medical Association estimates as much as $151 billion in medical liability costs are dumped on patients every year. Our country’s health care system is broken. Serious efforts to improve it must include malpractice reform. But don’t be mistaken: This is not merely a partisan issue raised by Republicans. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined in 2009 that there’s “evidence to suggest that lowering the cost of medical malpractice tends to reduce the use of health care services.” And the CBO found that by lowering the cost of insurance, reform would save taxpayers $54 billion over the next decade. Likewise, President Barack Obama’s bipartisan debt commission estimated reforming the nation’s tort laws could save taxpayers $17 billion by 2020. The commission endorsed “an aggressive set of reforms to the tort system.” Even Obama himself has sympathized with tort reform efforts. In his recently released budget proposal, the president included grants to help states experiment with tort reform laws. Why do we think reform will work? Because it already has. In 2003, Texas passed reforms similar to those we’re supporting. By 2007, the number of physicians in Texas had grown 18 percent, double the rate of population growth. The biggest surge was in typically underrepresented physicians. Meanwhile, Texas’ liability insurance fell 21 percent. North Carolina is one of the nation’s leaders in medical research and education. But we don’t want our doctors fleeing so they can practice more effectively. That’s why we must, and will, pass meaningful malpractice reform.