In February, the House Judiciary Committee passed the “Protecting Access to Care Act of 2017” (H.R. 1215), a bill that would make it harder for people to win cases for injuries caused by medical malpractice. The bill’s proponents argue that current medical malpractice laws drive up healthcare costs, force hospitals to provide unnecessary care, and prevent doctors from providing quality care. However, not only are those claims incorrect, this perspective ignores the important role that our current laws play in keeping the massive healthcare and pharmaceutical industries accountable for their actions and providing fair compensation for those who have suffered horrible emotional and physical injury.
H.R. 1215 was modeled on California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). MICRA set an arbitrary $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, which compensate victims for injuries whose value is hard to quantify such as loss of limb or sight, severe or permanent disfigurement, pain and suffering due to the death of a child. These caps disproportionately affect women, children, and individuals with disabilities who may not lose substantial income over the course of their life due to injury but that nonetheless have suffered terribly.
California Governor Jerry Brown, who signed the law in 1975, later opposed the law after witnessing its effects. When asked in 1993 whether MICRA should be incorporated into the proposed Clinton health plan, he said, “[MICRA] has not lowered healthcare costs, only enriched insurers and placed negligent or incompetent physicians outside the reach of judicial accountability.”
Like California’s law, H.R. 1215 places an arbitrary $250,000 cap on a victim’s noneconomic damages — without even adjusting the amount for inflation! This extremely low cap runs the risk of leaving victims of malpractice without fair compensation for their injuries. The bill also provides broad immunity from liability for doctors, pharmacists, nursing homes, and others in the healthcare industry for their negligent actions.
Unfortunately, during debate in the House Judiciary Committee, Republican members voted against every amendment that was offered by Democrats that fought to place patient’s rights over profits. Ultimately, the Committee voted to advance the bill to the entire House of Representatives for consideration.
Although Republicans argue that medical malpractice lawsuits are an expensive burden on healthcare spending, a recently published report by Public Citizen found that medical malpractice made up only 0.2 percent of hospital and physician services costs and 0.1 percent of all healthcare costs in 2015. Additionally, a study by Northwestern University and the University of Illinois found that implementing a cap on damages had no impact on hospital-based spending and actually caused a 4-5 percent increase in physician-service spending. Thus, medical malpractice suits make up very little of overall healthcare spending and a cap on damages would raise costs rather than lower them.
Astonishingly, up to 400,000 people a year die due to medical error — the third-leading cause of death in America. However, holding health care professionals responsible for negligent behavior has a positive impact on decreasing medical errors according to a 2015 report by Public Citizen. The report found that hospitals that implemented new safety initiatives to improve patient safety were successful in lowering the rates of birth-related injury. These life-saving changes occurred because there was a liability system in place that held hospitals accountable for malpractice.
Under H.R. 1215 our current liability system would be dismantled, eliminating accountability and putting patients at risk. Medical malpractice “reform” measures, like H.R. 1215, are a significant threat to patients and Congress should be working to establish stricter public safeguards rather than weakening our system.