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Medical Liability System 'Irrational,' AMA Chair Tells Congress

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, January 27, 2011

As the political scenario unfolds, there stands the AMA, which truly wants medical liability reform, and has wanted it for years. So the organization is moving toward whatever party curries favor, and vice versa. If it's the Republicans, so be it. And besides, the polls show, physicians generally aren't exactly thrilled with many aspects of healthcare reform.

In her testimony before the House committee, Hoven called the current medical liability system increasingly irrational and in need of reform. Then she toted out figures from reports showing that the current system is patently unfair: to physicians, and patients. Over the years the AMA has been tweaking their message to change the liability system. Their latest argument: it hurts patients.

Nearly 61% of physicians aged 55 and older have been sued. A majority of claims field against physicians lack merit, as 64% of liability claims that were closed in 2009 were dismissed or lacked merit, Hoven told the committee. On average, 95 medical liability claims were filed for every 100 physicians, she said.

The threat of malpractice claims drives up healthcare cost by at least $70 billion to $126 billion each year, according to a 2003 Department of Health and Human Services study, Hoven says, because physicians are forced to practice defensive medicine. And patients don't win out, she says, because those harmed by negligence really don't get the rewards; that goes to the attorneys and courts.

For too long the public hasn't understood the meaning of medical liability reform and what it means to them, she says. In terms of medical liability, she says there is an acknowledgement by the public that "it just impacts the cost of healthcare."

"So, you've got public concern now, which nobody really paid much attention to before, and now you've got dollars and figures attached to it, and I think people are looking at it in a different light," she says.

The AMA harps on changes that were made in medical liability in Texas and particularly California. The AMA supports reforms based on California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA) that caps non-economic damages at $250,000. While premiums generally were raised an astronomical 945% nationwide between 1976 and 2009, premiums in California increased 261 % -- less than one third of that amount.

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