by Newt Gingrich and Wayne Oliver
Originally published in the Kansas City Star on September 23, 2009
President Barack Obama has offered a fig leaf to doctors by pledging to consider civil justice reform. He directed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to look at creating “demonstration projects in individual states to test” civil justice reform ideas.
To those who have followed this issue, the proposal must have sounded like a plan to reinvent the wheel. Several states already have acted as demonstration projects for civil justice reform for years, and the results are in: Civil justice reform measures have improved access to care, reduced costs and strengthened those states’ economies. For example, California passed the landmark Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act more than 30 years ago. Under it, the state ensures that injured patients receive fair compensation while preserving their access to health care by keeping doctors, nurses and health care providers in practice and hospitals and clinics open.
According to Californians Allied for Patient Protection, the law “has saved health care consumers tens of billions of dollars.” Before the reform, California was facing a health care crisis. Hospitals, clinics and doctors, particularly those in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery, were leaving the profession or going out of business because of skyrocketing malpractice premiums.
Another example is Texas. The state in 2003 enacted comprehensive legal reform, including appropriate limits on non-economic damages, something known as compensation for “pain and suffering.” According to the Texas Medical Board, more than 10,000 doctors have either returned to the state or decided to move to Texas as a result of the reforms.
Communities in Texas that were once medically underserved now have access to primary and specialty care doctors.
There are also substantial economic benefits. As a direct result of reform efforts, almost 500,000 jobs moved to Texas. Additionally, almost 430,000 previously uninsured Texans now have health insurance.
In other states, Missouri and Georgia adopted reforms in 2005, and Mississippi enacted civil justice reform measures in 2002 and 2004. Oklahoma’s medical malpractice reform statutes become effective in November. Each state was threatened by a physician shortage because of skyrocketing malpractice premiums. Civil justice reform was the key to addressing the problem.
In contrast, states without liability reform continue to suffer shortages of providers, leading to the closing of hospitals, clinics and trauma centers, leaving patients with no doctors in their immediate vicinity.
For example, 19 maternity centers have closed in Philadelphia alone since 1997. The average waiting period for gynecological care for a new patient in the five-county southeastern Pennsylvania area is six to nine months. The reason is that Pennsylvania refuses to adopt civil justice reforms.
In New York, another state without reforms, eight counties are without obstetricians, according to the Center for Health Workforce Studies. The center also found that 18 of New York’s counties have shortages of practicing obstetrician-gynecologists.
We must embrace health reform nationally, but it must address changing our civil justice system. The threat of frivolous lawsuits has led to the practice of defensive medicine, which wastes the patient’s and physician’s time and costs an estimated $100 billion to $200 billion a year. Defensive medicine is when doctors order unnecessary tests and screenings to keep from being sued.
According to a recent poll conducted for the Common Good, a nonpartisan legal reform coalition, and the Committee for Economic Development, 83 percent of Americans want Congress to reform the medical malpractice system as part of any health care reform plan.
We don’t need to “study” what works. Those studies have already been written. We don’t need demonstration projects. We can already see the results of civil justice reform. Instead, we need real solutions and those solutions exist. Serious health care reform must include civil justice reform.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is founder of the Center for Health Transformation. Wayne Oliver is director of the center’s Health Justice Project.