Yesterday’s six hour “health care summit” between President Obama and Congressional leaders had its share of wonkish moments about interstate regulation of health care insurance. But it also featured a barn burning speech by Senator Dick Durbin about the Republicans’ plan for so-called medical malpractice “reform.”
Senator Durbin, himself a former medical malpractice lawyer, both on the defense side and the patient side, hammered home on several points that bear repeating because they are so surprising to most people.
- Even without new laws capping damages, medical malpractice lawsuits are dropping off dramatically. According to a study by the non-profit Kaiser Foundation (established by Henry J. Kaiser, the man who invented HMOs), the number of paid medical malpractice claims has declined by 50 percent over the last two decades. And between 2003 and 2008, the total amount paid out for medical malpractice claims – across the entire United States – was cut in half, from $8 billion to $4 billion.
- According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Republican plan for medical malpractice reform will save $5.4 billion dollars a year (out of a health care budget that is $2.5 trillion). But those savings will be offset, in whole or in part, by new costs: the cost of the deaths of people who are killed by medical malpractice reform. See, medical malpractice reform will make doctors feel a little bit more insulated from legal liability for their actions and, therefore, will make them a little bit more careless. It’s what economists call “moral hazard” – the excess risk that people take when they are not fully exposed to the risk of their actions. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the extra careless by doctors will result in additional 4,800 medical malpractice deaths a year. That’s on top of the 100,000 deaths that the Journal of the American Medical Association says are caused by medical malpractice annually.
- The Republican plan for a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering is an attempt to reduce health care costs by unfairly placing the price of those cuts on people whose lives have been ruined by medical malpractice. Sen. Durbin related an anecdote about one of his constituents: a woman whose face was burned off in the operating room when her oxygen supply caught fire. Is $250,000 in pain and suffering enough to compensate her? (As an aside, I’ve previously blogged about how these medical malpractice caps have not worked in the states that have adopted them)
I also enjoyed Sen. Durbin’s singling out Dr. Atul Gawande for praise (some of Dr. Gawande’s research on medical malpractice reform was previously blogged about here). Dr. Gawande’s new book The Checklist Manifesto is about four books down on my nightstand.
But enough rehashing Senator Durbin’s speech. You need to watch his knockdown of the Republicans for yourself: