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Tort reform critical to health care reform

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By The Staff

For months, members of Congress and the American public have hotly debated the right way to reform our health care system.  We all agree that there are steps that can be taken to improve health care to make it more affordable and accessible, but the devil is in the details.  It is critical that we find the right prescription for reform without adding to our climbing debt and deficit. One of the essential elements to successful reform that will reduce cost within our current health care system is comprehensive medical liability reform “tort reform.”

As you may know, the law permits individuals to pursue civil claims against doctors and health care providers for “torts,” or breaches of duty that result in injury. The abuse of this system by trial lawyers causes huge increases in the cost of health care because doctors practice “defensive medicine” in anticipation of being sued. Abuses of the system also result in consistently higher medical liability insurance premiums for doctors, and those costs are passed along to consumers.  Medical liability reform, done correctly, would reduce the number of junk lawsuits while protecting the rights of legitimately injured patients to hold the negligent responsible. 

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Statistics from private insurers, as well as a Justice Department report of 2007, indicate that upwards of 80 percent of malpractice cases are closed without payment — and when there is a trial, the physician-defendant wins 89 percent of the time.  Yet these lawsuits, even when dismissed or closed without payment, cost doctors time and money, and encourage defensive medicine.  This adds billions to the cost of medical care. It also increases malpractice insurance premiums, the costs of which get passed on to patients.”

Not only do abuses of our legal system increase physicians’ liability insurance rates and add to costs for consumers, they also drive qualified individuals out of the profession, reducing the availability of primary care doctors and specialists in some States.  In 2002, the Kentucky Medical Association found that Kentucky lost a significant percentage of doctors in high-risk fields such as obstetrics, mainly due to the high cost of liability insurance.  On Oct. 1, Dr. John White, president of the KMA, described the lack of doctors in rural areas and estimated that Kentucky needs 2,300 additional doctors to meet national standards.

On Oct. 9, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report that found that the enactment of substantive medical liability reform would reduce federal budget deficits by $54 billion over ten years and $11 billion this year alone

Health care reform will never be successful or sustainable unless we include substantive tort reform.  Republicans offered multiple amendments in both the House and Senate in an effort to include medical liability reform in health care reform legislation.  All of our amendments were defeated.

During his Sept. 9 address before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama agreed that tort reform could play a role in making health care more affordable, stating “I don’t believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs.”  It is time for the rest of the Democratic Leaders in Congress to follow suit and incorporate medical liability reform proposals into health care reform.

Congressman Geoff Davis