Despite Recent Scares, Patient Safety Still Absent from Campaign Debate
After a recent Hepatitis C scare at a Nevada medical clinic, which may have affected up to 40,000 patients, the head of the Center for Disease Control said that such incidents reflect a larger patient safety problem occurring across the country. This conclusion is unavoidable, when preventable medical errors cause 44,000 to 98,000 deaths each year. With the longest primary ever and intensifying public scrutiny over Senator Barack Obama’s and Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care plans, it’s time to talk about how we can ensure that patients have access to safe medical treatment – and, just as important, to justice through the courts if they are victimized by medical negligence.
So much attention has been focused on the number of the uninsured. But many of the countless Americans who have been forced to accept poor quality or negligent medical treatment have health insurance. In addition to adequate coverage, what they need – what all of us need – is a robust civil justice system that provides a remedy to people who have suffered needlessly, and that keeps the health care system on its toes in the process.
The civil court system allows patients to seek legal remedies when their safety has been compromised. But in addition to compensating those hurt, it also creates strong incentives for hospitals to prioritize the implementation of effective and sophisticated patient safety systems. Lawsuits encourage hospitals to reduce the medical errors that, according to a 2006 Institute of Medicine report, currently drain $3.5 billion per year from the medical system and cost society as a whole between $17 and $29 billion per year.
Despite the civil court system’s benefits, some support making it more difficult for patients who have been victimized by medical malpractice to access the courts and receive compensation for their injuries. Senator John McCain has expressed support for these so-called “tort reforms,” which arbitrarily limit the amount that an injured person can be compensated for a medical malpractice injury. These positions are often delivered with a condemnation of lawyers as greedy for representing injured people – in their minds, the profit motive should apply to all fields except for law. But these positions also come packed with the deceitful notion that out-of-control lawsuits are responsible for skyrocketing health care costs. This is not true.
According to a Congressional Budget Office report, limiting malpractice victims’ compensation from lawsuits would yield negligible reductions in total health care costs, only cutting them by up to 0.5 percent. But even worse, enacting tort “reform” won’t actually do anything to address the insurance industry’s unfair practice of overcharging doctors for medical malpractice insurance.
So what will this so-called tort “reform” accomplish? It will reduce compensation to injured patients who have been permanently disabled, lost their livelihoods or even their lives because of a hospital’s or a doctor’s negligence. And it will shield the poorly-regulated insurance industry from public scrutiny, enabling it to continue deceiving doctors and the public about the true cause of doctors’ increasing insurance rates – the insurance industry’s commitment to profits over ethics.
Senators Obama and Clinton, unlike their Arizona colleague, have realized that prioritizing patient safety is a much better use of our time than slashing medical malpractice victims’ remedies from lawsuits. They worked together on legislation that would have increased research for improving patient safety and encouraged doctor-patient communication about medical errors. Their proposed legislation provided alternatives to litigation but did not take away an injured person’s right to pursue justice through the public court system instead. The Senators also co-authored a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article in which they argued that restricting malpractice victims’ legal compensation “would do nothing to prevent unsafe practices or ensure the provision of fair compensation to patients.”
Our health care system is complicated; there are no panaceas. But this election offers us the opportunity to choose a national leader who will seek real improvements and not just promote “fixes” that only make things worse for victims of inadequate and negligent care.
Despite their prior work on patient safety, Senators Clinton and Obama have been quiet on the campaign trail about whether they support giving patients access to the courts if they are injured by medical negligence. But there is still time to restore substance to the election dialogue and demand that the candidates talk about this important issue. And for anyone who plans to go to the doctor in the next four years, it is imperative that we do.