Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is Tort Reform Coming?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced today that the federal government will provide $25 million in grants to states and health care systems that study ways to reduce the costs associated with medical malpractice lawsuits. The program will begin in 30 days and will announce funding winners early next year. The grants will be awarded for studies that examine such practices as “early apology” and restitution, although Sebelius promises to consider a broad range of ideas during the selection process.

The goal of the program is to reduce the costs associated with medical lawsuits and thereby decrease the amount spent on professional liability insurance. Ultimately, these measures aim to prevent physicians from conducting unnecessary or redundant tests in order to avoid malpractice claims.

Today’s announcement follows on the heels of President Obama’s health reform speech to Congress, in which he promised to address the issue of professional liability in health care. It is a significant shift from his previous refusal to consider any type of federal tort reform, and may represent a conciliatory nod to conservatives.

In my humble opinion, this is only a gesture, and while the spirit of it is appreciated, it is unlikely to influence physician behavior any time in the near future. The problem with conducting research in the area of malpractice litigation is that it takes many years for a case to come to conclusion, so meaningful data won’t be available for nearly a decade. By then, Obama’s health reform debates will be a thing of the past.

It is FEAR of lawsuits that drives physicians to practice defensive medicine. As long as lawyers look at malpractice suits as the price a physician pays for doing business and physicians look at malpractice suits as a threat to livelihood, identity and soul, the fear of lawsuits will continue to fuel the practice of defensive medicine.

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