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Malpractice Cases Aren't Reason Healthcare Costs Are Out of Control

Van O'Steen

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Unless reforms occur, the high cost of healthcare will continue to be a financial burden on us all. Adequate reforms require an understanding of the cause of the problem. However, the cause of the health-care crisis is elusive at best. The hard data often get lost or ignored as the debates heat up.

For example, ask any physician to explain the high cost of health care, and most are likely to blame the legal system's handling of malpractice lawsuits.  They will complain about the number of claims, the size of awards and the need to engage in expensive "defensive" medicine to protect themselves from suits.

The facts indicate otherwise. As acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the total cost of medical malpractice in the United States is less than one percent of all health-care expenditures. Eliminate malpractice claims entirely, and you reduce total health care costs by less than one percent.

A Harvard University study conducted in New York found that only one in eight victims of medical malpractice ever file a claim. This contradicts the belief that frivolous malpractice suits are routinely filed. In fact, it suggests that many more should be filed.

Consumer Reports published a book titled How to Resolve the Health Care Crisis. In it, the editors call medical malpractice a "straw man" in the health care cost debate. Webster's defines straw man as "a weak argument set up to gain an easy, showy victory."

The Consumer Reports book addresses the issue of "defensive medicine" by observing that unnecessary tests may be performed because the medical culture values doing "everything," or to reassure an anxious patient, or because the doctor earns a higher fee.

Randall Bovbjerg of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., has worked on several medical malpractice studies. He makes this observation: "The greatest single problem about malpractice is that there's a lot more of it out there than anyone is dealing with. Patients are getting avoidable injuries, and no one is stopping it."

The health care crisis is real. Medical malpractice claims and lawsuits are real. One, however, appears to have very little to do with the other.
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