Malpractice not to blame for rising health costs, panel says

Medill News ServiceOctober 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Curbing medical malpractice litigation isn't the "silver bullet" that's needed to slay the werewolf of rising health care costs, a panel of academics said Tuesday.

"Health policy myths become convenient truths," said Gregg Bloche, a graduate of the medical and law schools at Yale and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Bloche has written extensively on the implications of policy for doctors and patients.

Bloche, one of several speakers at a panel discussion organized by the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said that costs associated with medical malpractice accounted for "a small and steady fraction" of health care costs and couldn't be blamed for the continuing increase in those costs.

Bloche was joined by other experts in the legal, medical and economics fields.

"The bottom line is that (malpractice) tort reforms don't work as well as proponents say they do," said Kathryn Zeiler, a professor of law and economics at Georgetown and a widely published author on the subject of malpractice revisions.

Zeiler, citing studies spanning four decades, said that findings were conflicting and at most indicated only meager cost savings as a result of restricting medical malpractice litigation.

The panelists said politicians made points that were anecdotal rather than statistical and tended to make bloated claims about the negative impact of medical malpractice litigation on health care costs.

"Where you stand depends on where you sit," said David Hyman, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointing to the partisan aspect of the medical malpractice debate.

Hyman also said that most costs surrounding malpractice suits were associated with those cases that went beyond pretrial settlements. As a result, mechanisms such as "review panels" that curb lawsuits would have a limited effect on reducing costs.

"Tort reform is not a magical solution to the problems with our health care system," Hyman said. "There are dysfunctions in our system, and they ought to be addressed. But we ought to be modest in our expectations."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Heid, a graduate student in journalism from Ann Arbor, Mich., covers health care policy.)

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