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Do Malpractice Claims Really Drive Up Health Care Costs?

Several states are considering limiting an injured person's right to have his or her medical malpractice case decided by a jury. The most popular limitation appears to be placing a cap or limit on the amount of money juries can award for pain, suffering, and other damages that are difficult to measure. Many tort reform advocates and state legislatures justify these proposed limitations by claiming that frivolous or groundless lawsuits, and excessive jury awards, have driven up the cost of medical care in this country. But have they really?

Not according to the Harvard School of Public Health. A study concluded that more than 90 percent of the malpractice cases reviewed involved actual physical injuries. Of these injuries, 63 percent involved errors on the part of medical care providers. The remaining 37 percent of the cases did not involve errors, but some were close calls. In the cases that contained no medical errors, 72 percent of those claimants did not receive any payment or compensation. Interestingly, in the cases where errors were made, only 73 percent did receive payments. So it appears from the study that in cases where the medical providers did nothing wrong, 28 percent of those claimants received a settlement anyway. On the flip side, 27 percent of claimants who were injured by medical errors received no payment. The researchers concluded that the medical malpractice system got it right almost three-quarters of the time. While not perfect, the system works reasonably well considering how challenging it is to determine the difficult questions of whether a doctor or hospital was negligent.

The Harvard researchers also concluded that almost 80 percent of the costs of administering the medical malpractice system deals with claims that are valid. Cases that did not involve any mistakes by medical care providers absorbed only 13 percent to 16 percent of the total costs. Therefore, eliminating these "frivolous" claims would only reduce the cost of the malpractice system by a similar percentage. The question state legislators should be considering in the present tort reform debates is whether a cost saving of this amount justifies caps on malpractice awards, which will unfairly affect the patients with the most serious injuries.