Today's News

Friday, February 25, 2005

Outlook for reform is hopeful, says DMLR Chairman

The current medical liability crisis and the need for reform was the topic of a media briefing on Thursday with Stuart L. Weinstein, MD, AAOS first vice president, chairman of the AAOS Medical Liability Reform Oversight Committee and chairman of Doctors for Medical Liability Reform (DMLR).

Dr. Weinstein noted that the continuing rise of medical insurance premiums for doctors is an enormous concern for the medical community and affects Americans across the country. Physicians in several states have been forced to limit their services, move to another state or retire early, leaving many areas in the United States without access to critical healthcare services.

"Many states are struggling to find the balance between protecting their citizens from potential medical error and providing a means for proper access-to-care," said Dr. Weinstein. "There will be no reform, unless it comes from the federal government."

DMLR is a national coalition of more than 230,000 practicing medical specialists dedicated to protecting patients' access to healthcare by promoting the passage of federal legislation to put a cap on non-economic damages awarded in medical liability cases. The AAOS was a founding member of the DMLR and has taken a leading role in the campaign for reform.

Current statistics
From 1994 to 2000, the median jury award for a medical liability case rose by 176 percent. Many physicians have already been or currently are faced with judgments that have led to increase the average jury award to $3.5 million in 2000. The high cost to defend against lawsuits and escalating jury awards has driven increases in medical liability insurance premium nationwide. Currently, 20 states have been identified by the American Medical Association as experiencing an access-to-care crisis for groups of patients. Of the remaining states, 24 have the potential to be deemed "in crisis." Only six states-California, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico and Wisconsin-are considered stable, because they have instituted some type of reform.

The medical community believes that patients injured from medical error should be compensated for all actual damages, which includes payment for medical bills, disability costs, lost wages and job retraining.

However, there is a distinct difference between economic damages that can be measured by objective standards and non-economic damages, which attempts to put a cost on pain and suffering. Placing "caps" on non-economic damages would discourage frivolous lawsuits, ensure that patients who suffer injuries are fairly compensated and stabilize the out-of-control threat to healthcare across America.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, limiting unreasonable awards for non-economic damages could reduce healthcare costs by five to nine percent, without adversely affecting quality of care.

Federal and state reform efforts
President Bush has set medical liability reform as a priority for his second term in office. He has also initiated the "Healthy America Act of 2005," created to slow the growth of healthcare costs, expand healthcare insurance coverage and improve access to quality health care for millions of Americans.

In a recent speech regarding medical liability reform in Collinsville, Ill., President Bush said, "Because junk lawsuits are so unpredictable, they drive up insurance costs for all doctors, even for those who have never been sued; even for those who have never had a claim against them. When insurance premiums rise, doctors have no choice but to pass some of the costs on to their patients. That means you're paying for junk lawsuits every time you go to see your doctor." Passing a nationwide limit on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits would reverse these dangerous trends.

Until the federal government adopts a policy, many states are currently trying to institute medical liability reform with mixed success:

  • Last week in Georgia, Gov. Sonny Purdue signed into law a tort overhaul measure that includes capping jury awards for pain and suffering at $350,000. Georgia thus became the seventh state to adopt medical liability reform.
  • In Maryland, Governor Ehrlich vetoed a 79-page bill regarding medical liability in an effort to lower the limit on non-economic damages. However, the state's legislators later overrode the veto. With the General Assembly back in Annapolis for its regular session, Ehrlich and lawmakers unhappy with the bill are pushing for more legal changes to limit spiraling payouts in malpractice cases. While the issue has not been solved in Maryland, the government is taking steps to try to make the necessary changes to keep physicians from leaving the medical field or state, as well as lower healthcare costs.

"Americans cannot afford to lose any more doctors," stated Dr. Weinstein. "While solving the medical liability crisis will not fix the entire healthcare system in the United States, it is a solid step in the right direction."

Further information concerning developments in tort reform and solving the medical liability crisis can be found on the DMLR Web site, www.protectpatientsnow.org.

AAOS kicks off Phase II of MLR Campaign
By Stuart L. Weinstein, MD

Phase II of the AAOS Medical Liability Reform (MLR) Campaign is underway. The re-election of George W. Bush as president and the victories by supporters of medical liablity reform increase the chances of obtaining a federal solution in the next election cycle. The AAOS and the MLR Oversight Committee will continue to help states at the "tipping point" achieve meaningful and constitutionally sustainable reform at the state level, through our grants program to state orthopaedic societies.

We can be justifiably proud of our efforts to date. We have experienced significant victories on the state front and an increased likelihood of achieving success of the federal level. With a President who places a high priority on achieving medical liability reform, with a House of Representatives that supports reform and with a more favorable balance in the Senate, we must redouble our efforts to succeed.

On the federal level, the Doctors for Medical Liabilty Reform (DMLR) coalition is also beginning its Phase II federal campaign. Efforts will continue to educate the public, business leaders and legislators about the disastrous effects of the continually worsening medical liability crisis on the nation's health care and economy.

We have produced newsmagazine videos for six states: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington. The impact of these newsmagazines and our efforts are already being felt…Georgia recently passed reform legislation! The American public is fully aware of the increasing threat that this crisis has on their access to health care.

In addition, DMLR is expanding its membership and has begun fund raising for the 2006 election year efforts. The medical liability crisis is the number one issue affecting our member's ability to practice, yet only 8.5 percent of AAOS members contributed to Phase I of the campign. Imagine how effective our efforts would be if that number doubled as we move into Phase II of this campaign.

We have made giant steps toward achieving medical liability reform in this election cycle. But during the next election cycle, the window of opportunity will narrow, and the stakes will be higher for our patients and our profession. We need each and every member of the orthopaedic community to answer the call to action.

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