New bills spearheaded by the GOP could make it harder for victims of medical negligence and medical malpractice to secure fair compensation for their injuries. As part of the House Republicans’ efforts to replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, these bills would place new limits on lawsuits that involve doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes, and would likely be most harmful to low-income and elderly victims.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer claims the bills will lessen “frivolous lawsuits that unnecessarily drive up health care costs.” This idea–that health care would be affordable if only the government could curb all of the “frivolous” lawsuits attacking good doctors hospitals–is not only false, it is also dangerous. GOP Republicans have made countless attempts to limit the rights of medical negligence victims, but have failed consistently because the rights of victims to seek justice in the court system is guaranteed in the US Constitution.
The necessity of this guarantee is made clear when one looks at the facts: in its landmark 2012 study, To Err is Human, The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reported that one-third of hospital patients are harmed during their stay, and that 98,000 patients die due to medical errors every year.
If you happen to live in the state of New York, these staggering statistics are just the beginning. In both 2010 and 2011, Health Grades Patient Safety in American Hospitals studies ranked New York one of the ten worst states for patient safety. Then, in 2012, Consumer Reports began giving hospitals a patient safety score; 27 of the country’s 50 lowest-scoring hospitals were in downstate New York. Finally, The Journal of the American Medical Association’s 2010 survey of physicians reported that 17% of those responding said they knew directly an incompetent colleague in the last three years.
Democrats like Rep. Steve Cohen (Tennessee), say the new bills brought before Congress could block cases that involve extreme error on the part of the physician, keeping numerous medical negligence victims from obtaining justice.
It is also uncertain whether the bills would provide any actual benefit. Though Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), who introduced the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, claims that the justice system currently leans in favor of the victims in medical malpractice lawsuits, there simply is not data to support that.
Much of the data we do have supports the idea that it is the medical field, rather than the legal field of medical malpractice, that needs reforming. When leading public policy think tank The RAND Corporation reviewed closed medical malpractice claims and adverse in-hospital events, it found that “a greater focus on improving patient safety in healthcare settings could benefit medical providers as well as patients.”
There are practical examples of this, as well. According to The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in 2002, New York Presbyterian Hospital implemented a thorough obstetrics safety program that included additional training and emergency drills. This caused a 99% reduction in obstetric-related malpractice claims, and an estimated savings of $25 million per year for the hospital.
While Republicans typically advocate for states’ rights, these proposed bills would take the power out of states’ hands, setting federal limits on medical negligence cases and payouts to victims. They would also shift financial accountability for medical malpractice from the victim’s insurer to Medicare or Medicaid, which means that taxpayers will inevitably pay for the negligence of hospitals and doctors.
Not all Republicans in Congress support bills that limit medical negligence lawsuits. Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) is a formal trial lawyer who writes in his memoir, “A courtroom is where the lowliest victim should find justice and the highest wrongdoer receive just punishment.” If these bills were to pass, it would be the “lowliest victims,” the low-income and the elderly, that would be punished.
Limiting the rights of medical negligence victims doesn’t save money in the long term, nor does it improve health care. The only way to avoid medical malpractice lawsuits is to increase safety in hospitals and nursing homes, making them safer places for patients who have already suffered more than enough.
Carroll, Aaron E “For Malpractice Reform, Focus on Medical Reform First (Not Law)” The New York Times 17 April 2017.
Fisher, Daniel “Texas Trial Lawyer Hosts Graham, Casting Doubts About Tort Reform Bills” Forbes 17 April 2017.
Kindy, Kimberly “House GOP Quietly Advances Key Elements of Tort Reform” The Washington Post 9 March 2017.
Pear, Robert “G.O.P. Bill Would Make Medical Malpractice Suits Harder to Win” The New York Times 15 April 2017.
Rozen, Miriam “Led by Mark Lanier, Tort Reform Foes Fete Republican Senator in Houston” Law.com 17 April 2017.