Even as a new study shows shocking failures on the part of our health care system to keep us safe, legislators in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., continue to focus on tort reform. Recent analyses indicate that up to 20 percent of all medical diagnoses are incorrect, and an even more shocking report estimates that each of us is five to 10 times more likely to die from negligent care at a hospital than from either breast or prostate cancer.
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that up to 98,000 deaths occur annually in U.S. hospitals due to preventable errors. The new study, published in The Journal of Patient Safety, estimates that preventable medical errors kill between 220,000 and 400,000 patients a year, making errors the third-leading cause of death in America behind heart disease and cancer. It’s the equivalent of two 747s crashing every day with no survivors.
Yet instead of mandating more accountability, transparency and known safety precautions, some politicians continue to insist the real problem is our civil justice system. Despite the overwhelming evidence that medical errors are a rampant epidemic, they want to limit the rights of patients who are seriously injured or killed by medical malpractice.
For example, during the recent standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, Republican leaders in Congress issued a laundry list of demands, which included limits on medical malpractice lawsuits. But malpractice lawsuits have absolutely nothing to do with the debt ceiling. Every session in Harrisburg, certain lawmakers introduce bills to limit medical malpractice litigation, but nothing to improve patient safety or empower patients to hold wrongdoers accountable.
If legislators in Harrisburg merely looked at data available from state agencies, they would find that serious medical errors outpace malpractice lawsuits 5 to 1 in Pennsylvania. Last year, 8,039 hospital patients suffered death or serious harm, but only 1,508 victims filed lawsuits across the state.
Since 2002, when Pennsylvania adopted a host of restrictions on malpractice litigation, case filings have dropped 48 percent. Similarly, the amount of money paid out by insurance companies to malpractice victims and their families has declined 34 percent. Unfortunately, insurance companies haven’t passed along the savings to doctors. In the last decade, malpractice premiums have increased 53 percent and insurance companies have cumulatively pocketed more than $2.5 billion in premiums than they have paid out in claims. Meanwhile, the number of serious errors reported by our state’s hospitals have escalated unchecked.
So why do so many lawmakers continue to insist on targeting the justice system?
In short, because they are beholden to wealthy corporate interests who want to see all lawsuits go away, and the malpractice issue is a way for them to wedge open the door. Any review of the political action committees that contributed to tort reformers’ campaigns reads like a who’s who of special interests and corporate America – the chamber of commerce, Big Pharma, medical device makers, tobacco companies, polluters and the insurance industry, to name a few.
Ironically, or perhaps sadly, many tort reformers proclaim themselves to be strict Constitutionalists. If that were true, they would know that the Seventh Amendment says juries of local citizens– not corporations or politicians – get to decide how much compensation is fair and reasonable in all civil cases, including medical malpractice.
It is time that lawmakers act to reduce the number of malpractice lawsuits by reducing the number of preventable medical errors. They need to get the diagnosis right and prescribe the most effective cure – strong doses of safety, transparency and accountability. Anything less is legislative malpractice.