THE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CRISIS
The insurance industry, in conjunction with business groups and medical associations, attempts to. blame the civil justice system for the medical malpractice crisis in order to further its own agendas. The evidence, however, does not point to the civil justice system as a principal cause of the problem. The reality is that the legal, medical, and insurance fields play intertwining roles in this crisis.
The American Trial Lawyers Association reports that up to 98,000 Americans die each year because of medical malpractice. Only a small percentage of these cases results in lawsuits. In fact, the number of new medical malpractice claims filed annually declined nationally by about 4% since 1995.
You can find a wealth of information about the so-called medical malpractice crisis at ATLA’s website, www.atla.org,in the “Consumer and Medical Resources” section of the website. ATLA reports that medical malpractice cases make up only 7.7% of all tort filings filed. Medical malpractice was the underlying cause of action in only 1% of punitive damage awards. Although multi-million dollar awards make the headlines, the median jury damage award from medical malpractice is only $254,000.
In the winter of 2003, President Bush proposed a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, like pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases, declaring, No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit. While people who were working can recover lost wages, children, stay-at-home mothers, the unemployed, and the retired are much more limited. If they cannot recover for pain and suffering, there may be little compensation available to them.
The medical malpractice crisis is really an insurance crisis. The insurance industry itself admits that stock market losses and low interest rates have eaten up the reserves of many medical malpractice insurers. According to a press release dated January 7, 2003, from the North Central Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, St. Paul Insurance Company lost $100 million on Enron bonds. St. Paul has left the medical malpractice market.
Mary Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, says that tort reform is, “a misdiagnosis. We see this every ten to twelve years.” Just as in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the insurance companies raise premiums to offset losses in the stock market.
The medical profession bears its share of the blame. Its reluctance to self-police is a major contributing factor to the crisis. According to the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank:, for Pennsylvania, 10.6% of its doctors have paid two or more malpractice awards to patients. These repeat offender doctors are responsible for 84% of all payments. Yet only 6.8% of doctors who made ten or more malpractice payments were disciplined.