Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Medical Tort Reform (1)

The U.S. House of Representatives will soon consider a medical malpractice reform (limiting awards for pain and suffering to $250.000) which it adopted seven times in the last ten years. Following almost certain House passage, the proposal will then confront the Senate,

cartoon malpractice

where it has failed seven times. The politics of the two chambers are not chief concerns of this paper, which strongly advocates passage. The paper contends that unwise incentives for patients to bring suit are important causes of present difficulty, and reducing such incentives offers a comparatively simple opportunity to bring the complex issue to quick stability. Stability is essential before more sweeping changes can be examined. The collection of data in certain areas would reduce the scope for vituperation and ideology, another important step toward a solution. Full recognition must eventually be given to the intertwined complexity of industrial product liability, the McCarran Ferguson Act, hospital and corporate governance in general, the tort system, pass-through of Medicare and Medicaid overhead reimbursement to malpractice premiums, even universal health insurance. Some small step must begin such an interlocked rearrangement, and a cap on pain and suffering has the major advantage of being successfully tested by twenty-five years of experience in California and Indiana.

This paper makes no claim of identifying all the root causes or predicting all the calamitous consequences of inaction. Advocating passage of national laws to reduce plaintiff incentive to sue, it chiefly focuses on the chief arguments historically made against the present proposal, offers some comparatively novel insights in favor, and makes suggestions for collecting data to reduce the latitude for disagreement.

Congress will again take up malpractice tort reform (MICRA) in 2005. perhaps successfully. The 2004 outcome was close. Since the Republicans subsequently made electoral gains in both House and Senate, the leadership is considered likely to re-introduce the same bill and try to hammer it through. The bill's medical essence is to limit awards for "pain and suffering" to $250,000, contrasting strongly with recent escalating awards which have sometimes reached $100 million. Newcomers to the issue may be surprised that so much emphasis gets placed on this point, but thirty years of wrangling experiences in state legislatures have produced this reform alone with proven effectiveness. In the course and semi-jocular language of politics, "nothing helps the malpractice problem unless it involves on

Originally published: Wednesday, June 21, 2006; most-recently modified: Saturday, May 25, 2019