Does Medical Malpractice Reform Help Patients?

In the debate in Columbus and across the nation about how to stop medical care costs from climbing even higher, medical malpractice reform is a frequently proposed solution. But does it work?

Also called tort reform, medical malpractice reform usually involves placing limits on the amount of compensation a patient who is injured by a medical provider's negligence can receive. Advocates say that malpractice claims - and the threat of malpractice claims - cause higher medical malpractice premiums and lead doctors to order unnecessary medical tests as a result.

Yet several studies show that tort reform has not resulted in lower health care costs in many states where it has been enacted. Despite this, legislators, candidates for elected office, doctors and insurers continue to clamor for limits on the amount of compensation a patient who suffered from medical errors  and other negligent acts may receive as a result of serious medical malpractice claims. Laws have been enacted in nearly 30 states, including Ohio.

Tort Reform in Ohio

In Columbus, legislators passed a reform measure several years ago that places limits on certain kinds of damages available to plaintiffs in an Ohio medical malpractice case. There are no caps on compensatory damages, which compensate a patient for the actual costs of an injury from a medical malpractice claim, such as medical bills and lost wages.

There are caps, however, on noneconomic damages, which compensate an injured patient for the pain and suffering caused by a medical mistake. This is limited based in part on the amount of compensatory damages.

  • The cap begins at $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, if that is greater.
  • If a patient is eligible for damages that are three times the amount of compensatory damages, there is a second cap of $350,000 per patient.
  • If a patient's injuries are severe enough, the cap is $500,000.

Health Care Costs Still Rise

The result: Medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors did drop by 22 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to newspaper reports. But between 2004 and 2008, health insurance premiums in the state increased by 19 percent, from an average cost of $9,590 to $11,495, newspapers stories showed.

The results in Ohio mirror those of other states. In Texas, a June 2012 study of Medicare spending after Texas enacted a severe tort reform law concluded that the state's tort reforms did not reduce health care costs. A 2009 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office noted that even if the nation enacted extreme tort restrictions, the health care savings would be about .5 percent. According to the Center for Justice and Democracy, the CBO analysis does not include factors that could actually increase health costs.

Effect of Reform for Patients

While health care costs have not decreased, the number of medical malpractice claims has dropped. In Ohio, for example, the number of medical malpractice suits dropped by 39 percent from 2005 to 2008. Studies and analyses nationwide show that despite widespread medical errors that injure and kill thousands every year, relatively few medical malpractice claims are filed.

With health care costs continuing to climb and less compensation available for medical negligence, the only major effect of tort reform may be to limit patients' rights to hold negligent medical providers responsible.