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Analysis: Medical malpractice payments continue to fall

Fewer medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009 than any year on record, according to the National Practitioner Data Bank.

This finding contradicts claims that medical malpractice litigation is to blame for rising healthcare costs and that changing the liability system to the detriment of patients will not curb costs.

The value of malpractice payments was also the lowest since 1999. Adjusted for inflation, payments were at their lowest since 1992, a Public Citizen analysis of the NPDB shows.

According to the analysis, healthcare spending rose 83 percent from 2000-09, while medical malpractice payments fell 8 percent (both figures are in unadjusted dollars.)

A total of 10,772 payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2009, totaling $3.49 billion. That figure equals 0.14 of 1 percent of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ estimated $2.5 trillion in overall U.S. healthcare spending for 2009.

Last year was the fifth consecutive year that the number of payments has fallen and the sixth straight year in which the value of payments has fallen, according to the analysis. In contrast, U.S. healthcare costs have increased every year since 1965, the first year the data was recorded.

Studies have found that injuries and deaths caused by medical errors dwarf the number of actual medical malpractice payments. For example, the Institute of Medicine found in 1999 that 44,000 to 98,000 people die every year due to avoidable errors.

Proposals to set up alternative “health courts” that theoretically would compensate a greater percentage of patients in a less adversarial setting are misguided, according to Public Citizen, which said such a system would cost several times as much as the status quo if administered fairly. The only way to save money would be to impose draconian limits on compensation, according to Public Citizen.

“Litigation accounts for a miniscule fraction of health costs, small enough to be a rounding error,” said David Arkush, director of the Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “It is ridiculous that certain members of Congress continue to obsess about this greatly exaggerated problem. They should know better, and they should focus instead on fixing real problems like the crisis of preventable medical errors.”

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