Health Care Costs, Tort “Reform”, and “Defensive Medicine”

The way the GOP talks about tort reform you would think that medical malpractice cases are responsible for 100% of the rise in health care costs. Now, from the noted left-wing rag The Wall Street Journal editorial page, comes an incredible story about how the costs of defensive medicine are non-existent yet still a huge problem.

Defensive medicine, if you haven’t watched Fox news lately, is where doctors order unnecessary tests and procedures because of their fear of a medical malpractice lawsuit. Defensive medicine is the new tort bogeyman because it has been shown that the amount of medical malpractice payments made to compensate injured patients has nothing to do with health care costs.

The editorial in the WSJ finally admits that

“several economic studies (including work by us) have found that states that have enacted malpractice reforms experienced a mere 2%-5% reduction in health-care spending compared to states that have not. This has led to a loose consensus among most economists and policy makers that defensive medicine is not an important contributor to U.S. health-care spending—and therefore that malpractice reform is not of much significance for containing costs.”

It sounds like that should be the end of the article. Case closed. Incredibly, the editorial goes on to say that even though there is a complete lack of evidence to show that the medical malpractice system has any significant effect on health care costs, defensive medicine is still a problem because doctors say so. They say this even though the writers also admit “that that 68% of physicians in the five states with the highest malpractice risk reported ‘ordering some tests or consultations simply to avoid the appearance of malpractice.’ Yet 64% of physicians in the five states with the lowest malpractice risk reported doing the same thing”.

The editorial writers don’t believe that statistic means doctors have no idea what is legally necessary or unnecessary, or that they want to deflect the issue of rising health care costs away from their high salaries, or the fact that many of them are paid by the procedure so they have a financial incentive to do as many as possible. The writers feel that the high level of reported unnecessary tests or consultations means that defensive medicine is real, but tort reform has not helped to reduce or prevent doctors from asking for unnecessary consultations or tests.

The only reason for any sort or “tort reform” is to lower costs for insurers, hospitals, doctors, and the like while shifting those costs onto patients who suffer harm due to the negligence of another person. Tort reform, especially tort reform based around damage caps, serves to make it more difficult for patients harmed due to negligence to be fully compensated for their medical costs, other costs, and pain and suffering.

There are many causes of America’s problem with rising health care costs. That people harmed through no fault of their own are compensated for the harm they suffered has almost nothing to do with the problem.

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