May 22

Verdict Already in on Medical Liability Reform

by Newt Gingrich and Wayne Oliver
Originally published in The Wichita Eagle on September 19, 2009

In President Obama’s health care speech to Congress last week, he 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 efforts for civil justice reform, this proposal must have sounded like a plan to reinvent the wheel. The fact is that several states have acted as “demonstration projections” or “incubators” for civil justice reform for years, and the results are in: Civil justice reform measures have significantly improved access to care, reduced costs and strengthened their economies. For example:

* California. Since passage of the landmark Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act more than 30 years ago, California 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, “MICRA has saved health care consumers tens of billions of dollars.” Prior to MICRA, California was facing a health care crisis. Hospitals, clinics and doctors, particularly those in high- risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgeons, were leaving the profession or going out of business because of skyrocketing malpractice premiums.

* Texas. In 2003, Texas enacted comprehensive legal reform, including appropriate limits on noneconomic 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 direct result of the civil justice reforms.  Communities in Texas that were once medically underserved now have access to primary and specialty care doctors.

Many parts of the state suffered chronic shortages of key specialists, but as a result of progressive civil justice reforms, these areas of Texas now have a full complement of physicians.

There are also significant economic benefits of civil justice reforms. As a direct result of reform efforts, almost 500,000 new jobs relocated to Texas. Additionally, almost 430,000 previously uninsured Texans now have health insurance. Texas is another shining example of how civil justice reform can stimulate the economy, create jobs and reduce the rolls of the uninsured — all while improving access to health care.

* Other states. Georgia adopted comprehensive reforms in 2005. Mississippi enacted civil justice reform measures in 2002 and 2004. And Oklahoma’s medical-malpractice reform statutes become effective in November. Each state was threatened by a burgeoning physician shortage due to skyrocketing malpractice premiums, and civil justice reform was the key to addressing the problem.

In contrast, states without liability reform continue to suffer from shortages of providers — leading to the closing of hospitals, clinics and trauma centers and 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 gynecologic 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 significant shortages of practicing obstetricians/gynecologists.

We can and must embrace health reform on the national level, but it must address changing our civil justice system. The threat of frivolous lawsuits has led to the practice of defensive medicine, which not only wastes the patient’s and physician’s time but also costs an estimated $100 billion to $200 billion a year. Defensive medicine is when doctors order unnecessary tests and screenings to prevent themselves from being sued.

Americans want to change the way we settle medical injury disputes. 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 in states such as California, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Mr. President: The time for serious health reform is now. It must include civil justice reform.

Newt Gingrich is founder of the Center for Health Transformation. Wayne Oliver is director of the center’s Health Justice Project.


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