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September 29, 2009

On the Right Side: Malpractice tort reforms needed now


In my last column, I listed many ways for Congress to move slowly, cautiously and responsibly in trying to implement some kind of health care reform. I'll try to use the next one or two columns to expand on those possibilities.

First, nothing gets off the ground unless Congress and Obama make a serious attempt at medical malpractice tort reform. We are talking about billions of dollars saved annually and it's very easy to implement.

However, nothing happens until Obama and the radical leftist leadership in Congress decide to stop playing politics and start leading. Please do what is best for the country, rather than what is best for your party, special interests, trial attorneys "" who are presently pulling your strings.

What does Obama do? On one hand, he gives tort reform a few lines in his reading to a joint session of Congress and, of all things, he wants this area to proceed slowly. On the other hand, he has demanded a speedy, successful conclusion to his monstrous, irresponsible and expensive health care reform proposal he is presently trying to shove down our throats. His shallow rhetoric is starting to be recognized by people for what it really is: empty and untruthful.

And then, on top of everything, he announces he is going to appoint Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to head the demonstration projects involving limited tort reform in certain states. Conveniently, Kathleen was, for many years, the director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association!

Barack, Kathleen, you don't need to run any trial tests. You have two states who have implemented reform. Texas, which had a 30 percent drop in medical malpractice insurance premiums, and California, which had a 40 percent reduction. Both states, which were facing serious shortages in medical professionals _ primary-care physicians and certain specialists _ had doctors rushing back to these states.

The costs and consequences of doing nothing are huge! A study done in 2005 by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress showed 80 percent of all medical liability claims filed aren't associated with injuries as a result of physician negligence. Of all claims made, 61 percent are dismissed, 32 percent are settled without a trial (both involving large costs), 6 percent of claims result in a verdict for the defense and only 1 percent result in a verdict for the plaintiff.

This settlement percentage sounds good except that physicians have to incur very large legal fees just to defend themselves. Their costs average $17,000 for dismissed cases, $40,000 for settled cases and even $86,000 just to mount a successful defense. And these costs don't reflect the costs of lost revenues, significant time away from practices, permanent damages to reputation and the resulting adversarial relationships with patients (understandably so).

Who pays for these malpractice premiums? Health care providers logically have to pass them on to insured individuals. How would you like to spend eight or more years after your undergraduate college experience and be burdened with probably well over $200,000 in college loans and facing annual malpractice premiums of between $100,000 and $500,000 a year before even considering all the other extensive costs of starting and running your practice of medicine?

The committee estimated costs of malpractice premiums passed on averaged about $87 per insured and $350 annually for a family of four. Reductions of these amounts to individuals' insurance just might make a difference in being able to afford health insurance.

If that doesn't impress you, add to that the costs of defensive medicine (additional tests and procedures called for to avoid litigation rather than being necessary for the patient), which are between three and six times greater than the above malpractice insurance costs being passed on. You certainly cannot blame a physician for protecting him/herself from such career-ending risks.

Other consequences of doing nothing about tort reform? How about doctors retiring early, relocating to doctor-friendly states or simply discontinuing their practices? How about individuals reconsidering their decision to even enter the medical field? There is a serious shortage of qualified health professionals, and out-of-control malpractice costs along with defensive medicine practices will only aggravate the present situation. Research shows those hurt most by the skyrocketing costs of malpractice premiums are low-income individuals, women and those living in rural areas.

So Barack, be a leader for once and get out of your campaign mode. You wanted the medical profession to give you $300 billion in savings to put toward your plan over the next decade. Five to 10 times this amount can be saved through responsible medical malpractice tort reform and all the related indirect costs associated with it.

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Tom Sears is a professor of accounting at Hartwick College in Oneonta. He can be reached at SearsT@hartwick.edu. His column appears every other week.