Study contradicts med-mal 'reform' arguments

This from the American Association of Justice:

Less than a quarter of the claims that doctors filed with an insurer seeking coverage for medical malpractice liability resulted in payments to the patients who alleged harm, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The low rate of payments shows that insurers deny far more claims than they pay--and that the so-called medical malpractice crisis is nonexistent, plaintiff lawyers say.

The study, "Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty," looked at data between 1991 and 2005 for all the physicians covered by one national insurer. It found that while 7.4 percent of physicians faced a malpractice claim annually, only 1.6 percent had a claim that led to a payment. Seventy-eight percent of claims did not result in payments. The study considered only claims filed with the insurer, not lawsuits filed in court.

"What this new study tells us is that the supposed wave of malpractice payments is actually a myth that has been built up by the scare tactics of insurance companies and tort 'reform' groups," said AAJ President Gary Paul in a statement.

Denver lawyer Jim Leventhal agreed. To recoup their losses in the real estate and stock market, insurers have "increased premiums on physicians and blamed it on lawsuits," he said, adding that this misrepresentation of lawsuits' impact comes "at the unfair expense of physicians and patients."

The study authors noted that the factors that drive the likelihood of a claim are independent of the factors that affect payment size. Doctors in certain high-risk specialties, like neurosurgery, were more likely to face claims, but those claims were not more likely to result in payments, and those payments were not larger than those for physicians in lower-risk specialties.

The discrepancy between claims and payments reinforces the argument against damages caps in med-mal cases, Leventhal said. He noted that although tort "reformers" say caps lower malpractice insurance rates, states with caps often have higher rates than those without caps.

The study highlights the "absolute unfairness of caps, which make it financially impossible for catastrophically injured patients or families of patients who have died to pursue claims because the cost of going forward exceeds what their state allows them to collect," he said.

"A strong civil justice system offers injured patients the ability to hold negligent providers accountable and increases patient safety to help prevent negligence before it occurs," Paul said.

"Instead of allowing insurance companies and tort reform groups to perpetuate these myths, we should focus on patient safety as a proven way of reducing claims and saving lives."


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