Malpractice Lawsuits and the National Debt

This article was written by attorney and "CBS Evening News" researcher Paula Reid

The bipartisan national debt commission touts medical malpractice reform as a way to contain soaring health care costs. But even if all of these reforms were enacted the total savings would be just a tiny fraction a percent of the total national debt.

The panel focuses on the system through which damages are collected after a person is injured or killed. Malpractice suits are supposed to prevent medical errors and to compensate patients and their families for losses incurred as a result. Critics argue that malpractice suits increase insurance premiums for doctors and result in unnecessary -- and expensive -- tests and services to avoid exposure to lawsuits. This increases the cost of health care.

The bipartisan national debt commission highlights medical malpractice reform as a way to contain health care costs and reduce the deficit, saving taxpayers $17 billion by 2020.

There have been dozens of unsuccessful attempts at malpractice reform over the last decade.

The president of the American Tort Reform Association, Tiger Joyce, notes: "[A]merica's litigation industry remains one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, of course, and the personal injury lawyers who comprise it can be counted on to resist any and all such reforms with everything they've got."

One of the panel's suggestions are specialized "health courts" for medical malpractice lawsuits which could streamline cases and reduce costs.

"I'd be worried that medical errors would become a bigger problem if "health courts" forgave medical errors so long as the doctors and hospitals used the "best practices," said UCLA law professor Mark Grady. "This would be like forgiving driving errors so long as the drivers had the best equipment on their cars."

Even if all of these reforms were enacted the total savings would be a fraction of a percent of the national debt. The United States spend about $2.4 trillion dollars a year on health care.

Of that figure, it's estimated that medical liability costs about $55.6 billion or 2.4%.

Reforms, similar to the ones recommended by the panel would only reduce national health care spending by $11 billion or .5%. While reforms could save billions, it would only reduce health care spending by a fraction of a percent. Ad the percent is almost incalculably small when compared to the $13.8 trillion national debt.

The panel doesn't seem to address what many perceive as the underlying purpose of medical malpractice liability which is to prevent errors and thereby prevent many lawsuits. The Institute of Medicine estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year because of preventable medical errors.

While the panel's goal is to save money, an emphasis on preventing medical errors could save taxpayer money and realize what Grady calls, "the real purpose of the medical malpractice system"- safer medicine.