issue guide: Medical Malpractice

The Skinny

see also background & facts, pro & con, links

What's Up

All across the US, doctors are packing up their little black bags and heading to state capitals and DC to protest skyrocketing medical malpractice jury awards, which – they say – push up their insurance premiums, scare doctors off from higher-risk practices and raise health care costs for us all.

Many states and members of Congress – along with President Bush – agree medical lawsuits are a problem and support bills to limit their payouts. But opponents say the negative impact of lawsuits are exaggerated; they argue, instead, that lawsuits are an effective way to pay back victims and force doctors to practice careful medicine. Forty states have passed some kind of medical malpractice reform, and Bush put it at the top of his second term agenda.

What the Debate's About

Reformers have two beefs with the high cost of lawsuits. First, they say runaway jury awards push up doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums; high premiums, in turn, threaten doctors’ economic livelihood, and, by forcing them to abandon certain practice and geographic areas, affect the health of patients. Second, the litigation frenzy, they say, forces doctors to practice “defensive medicine” – unnecessary tests and procedures to protect themselves from getting sued – which adds to the high cost of health care for the nation. Reformers argue that relief will come only when the government caps the amount juries can award for non-economic and punitive damages.

Opponents of reform say that other factors besides jury awards are pushing up malpractice premiums, so capping them won’t solve the problem of raging insurance costs. They also doubt how much “defensive medicine” really exists or, if it does, can be stopped. Instead, they argue that capping jury awards could have negative effects, leaving victims unfairly compensated and creating shoddier medical care for us all, once the threat of lawsuits is partially removed.

Where Things Stand Now

Past attempts to cap malpractice awards were stalled in the Senate in 2004, 2005 and 2006 - although easily passing in the House. The newly Democratic Congress is less gung-ho on medical malpractice reform, although a new Senate bill, S 1481, that would let some states experiment with ways to bring down costs could get some play.

Updated June 3, 2007

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