Now that his yearlong partisan push for government-run health care has so far failed to produce legislative results, President Barack Obama wants Republicans to join him for another White House summit to see if he can salvage his proposals. But unless the president and congressional Democrats address the need for tort reform as a critical component of cutting health care costs, a bipartisan solution seems unlikely.
The unsustainable path of rising costs is a serious national problem. Currently, health care spending exceeds $2.5 trillion per year. By 2019, it is expected to top $4.7 trillion per year. Any hope for cost containment would involve comprehensive medical malpractice reform to end the practice of defensive medicine, close the loopholes that allow frivolous lawsuits to clog up the system, and set reasonable limits on jury awards.
The president seems to think that eliminating wasteful spending alone would get Americans on track to more affordable coverage. But the government’s track record of recouping its losses from waste, fraud and abuse leaves something to be desired. In 2008, for example, the government recovered a meager $35 million from criminal prosecution of fraud once enforcement costs were factored in. Real savings would start when Congress tackles the billion-dollar problem of defensive medicine.
Defensive medicine — when doctors order unnecessary and usually expensive tests and procedures in order to avoid lawsuits — is a major contributor to skyrocketing health care costs. As much as $210 billion is spent on defensive medicine annually — equal to $700 for every U.S. man, woman and child. This helps drive up insurance premiums that are already too high for many Americans. And the excessive malpractice litigation inevitably leads to physician shortages — especially among obstetricians, neurosurgeons and emergency room physicians.
Fewer doctors mean reduced access to medical care for everybody. New Jersey, for example, will be short 2,800 family doctors and specialists by the year 2020, according to a recent report from the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals. The reason for the shortage, council President Richard Goldstein says, is a “morale problem” because of the state’s “hostile” environment for doctors and the heightened threat of malpractice lawsuits.
As long as out-of-control malpractice premiums are built into medical costs, many will never be able to afford coverage. Shamefully, it is estimated that the cost of defensive medicine and the associated liability-based medical care costs account for at least 3.4 million uninsured Americans.
Moreover, the current system is studded with irresponsible lawyers’ fees associated with malpractice claims that do not involve injury or medical error. A large share of the awards goes to pad the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys. Recently, the Manhattan Institute concluded that approximately 10 cents of every dollar paid for health care services goes to cover malpractice premiums, defensive medicine and other costs associated with excessive litigation.
Tort reform that reduces frivolous lawsuits and caps outrageous jury awards is a critical component of any solution to bring the cost of health care within reach of every American. So far, however, the president has barely mentioned it.
If bipartisan support is what he’s after, the president needs to do more than host Republicans at the White House for a chat. He’s going to have to get serious about the damage being done to U.S. health care by frivolous lawsuits and the cost of defensive medicine, which real reforms could correct.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.