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13-08-2012 | Article

Malpractice payments sink to record low


Free report

MedWire News: Malpractice payments made by insurers on behalf of physicians were at their lowest ebb in 2011, a public advocacy group reports.

Adjusted for inflation, the value of malpractice payments was at the lowest level since the US government began collecting insurance payout data in 1991, says a report by Public Citizen, based in Washington, DC.

Although welcome news for physicians, hospitals, and insurers, the downward trend comes at the expense of patients, writes Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

"But, contrary to the promises of policymakers and leaders of physician groups who have spent the past two decades championing efforts to restrict patients' legal rights, there is no evidence that patients have received any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies. Instead, the evidence suggests that litigation restrictions have suppressed meritorious claims, forcing malpractice victims and ordinary patients to absorb the costs of treating injuries caused by uncompensated medical errors," Lincoln writes.

Public Citizen researchers drew on the anonymous National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) for information on malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors and on specific disciplinary actions against physicians that are required by law to be reported.

They found that malpractice payments were 0.12% of the USA's total healthcare bill in 2011, and that in 2010 the liability insurance premiums were lower than at any time since data collection began.

The author says that the data contradict claims of unjustified malpractice awards made by advocates for tort reform.

"Despite suggestions by those seeking to reduce patients' legal rights that medical malpractice lawsuits are largely 'frivolous,' the vast majority of payments compensate for extremely serious harms. Four-fifths (80 percent) of the money paid for medical negligence in 2011 compensated victims or their surviving family members for harms defined by the NPDB as significant permanent injuries; major permanent injuries; quadriplegia, brain damage, or injuries requiring lifelong care; or death. The latter two categories (quadriplegia, brain damage, or injuries requiring lifelong care; and death) accounted for 44 percent of the dollars spent to compensate victims of medical malpractice," Lincoln writes.

He also "debunks" claims that medical malpractice litigations lead to increased healthcare costs, noting that in unadjusted dollars, healthcare spending grew by 96.7% from 2000 through 2011, while the value of medical malpractice payments declined by 11.9%.

By Neil Osterweil, MedWire Reporter