Medical Malpractice Reform Critical for Seniors Health Care

Published April 1, 2003

Senior citizens know all too well that doctors are fleeing from the medical profession. Increasing bureaucracy and paperwork, excessive medical litigation, reduced payments from Medicare, and skyrocketing liability insurance costs are forcing doctors to change specialties, move their practices, or leave health care altogether. The broken medical litigation system rewards only trial lawyers and leaves patients with higher costs, restricted medical care, and difficulties finding doctors.

AMA: Eighteen States in Crisis

The American Medical Association recently added seven new states, bringing the total to 18 states “in crisis” because skyrocketing insurance premiums are driving doctors out. Most recently, doctors in New Jersey and Florida held a work slow-down to highlight the problem.

Mississippi is expected to lose 20 percent of its doctors. Las Vegas, Nevada is expected to lose 10 percent of its doctors. In one Pennsylvania county, 65 percent of physicians surveyed indicated they are considering moving their practice to another state. Other states in crisis include Florida, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Hospitals are literally being shut down. Last July, one Nevada trauma center closed for 10 days because surgeons could not afford their insurance premiums, the price of which ranged from $40,000 to $200,000. The nearest equivalent trauma center is five hours away, seriously threatening the lives of patients needing emergency care.

Patients Suffer Most

The problem is worsening, with more states facing crises as each month goes by. But those who suffer most from skyrocketing medical litigation are the patients.

Patients are suffering in all walks of life, young and old, black and white, in urban areas and rural areas. One survey revealed more than 76 percent of doctors are concerned that malpractice litigation hurts their ability to provide quality care to their patients.

Patients are being subjected to additional, and often unnecessary, testing simply because doctors are threatened by possible lawsuits at every turn. Seventy-nine percent of doctors said they ordered more tests than they normally would have, for fear of lawsuits. Fifty-one percent recommended more invasive procedures (such as biopsies) to confirm diagnoses than they otherwise would have. Surgeons are fearful of performing surgery on riskier patients, such as seniors. This constant threat of lawsuits discourages medical professionals from taking innovative new efforts to treat medical problems.

Seniors Support Reform

United Seniors Association’s 2002 Post-Election Voter Survey, conducted by the Winston Group, showed overwhelming support for malpractice reform. Seventy-five percent of all voters and 76 percent of voters over the age of 65 want lawsuit judgments limited and excessive litigation ended.

AARP’s lack of endorsement for H.R. 5, The HEALTH Act, is in direct opposition to its members’ views on malpractice litigation reform. Once again, AARP has shown it values its liberal allies and big-government political agenda more than it values its own members.

The broken legal system is raising Americans’ health care costs through higher out-of-pocket payments, insurance premiums, and federal taxes. Americans could save as much as $100 billion a year immediately in private and federal health care costs with reasonable damage recovery.

Last year alone, insurance premiums in many states increased by more than 20 percent on average, and more than 75 percent for specialties in some states. These soaring insurance premiums for doctors get passed through to patients in the form of higher health care costs and higher taxes. This badly broken system of litigation serves the interest of specialized trial lawyers, not patients. A large number of plaintiffs get nothing from their lawsuits.

Fixing the medical liability crisis will mean more money for improved health care coverage options and prescription drug coverage. The fastest and most cost-effective way to improve patient access to care, quality of health care, and reduce costs for patients is for Congress to reform the medical liability system to guarantee reasonable non-economic damages and discourage frivolous lawsuits. The House and Senate should follow President Bush’s leadership and must stand up for patients–not for lawyers and the ridiculously high costs they bring to our health care system.

Charles W. Jarvis, J.D. is chairman and chief executive of United Seniors Association, a Washington, DC-based group uniting the generations for tax freedom, health care freedom, and retirement and investment freedom for today’s seniors and future retirees. Jarvis can be reached at or [email protected].