Tort Reform Makes a Comeback


After being relegated to the back burner for months, tort reform has begun bubbling to the surface in editorials, polls, and at last month's televised healthcare summit. The focus has largely remained on how states can rein in unnecessary and expensive medical malpractice lawsuits. But a recent court case in Illinois, a new poll suggesting a high prevalence of "defensive medicine", and the glimmer of a bipartisan proposal for special "health courts" might provide the impetus for reform at the federal level.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), about half of the states have some form of medical liability caps on noneconomic damages or total damages, though the courts haven't always gone along with the limits. Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the state's 2005 medical liability cap of $500,000 for doctors and $1 million for hospitals was unconstitutional. In a March 1 editorial, the AMA vowed to fight on, highlighting the positive experiences of tort reform in Texas.

As the "Public Policy" column in the March issue of The Hospitalist suggests, the liability caps approved by Texas voters in 2003 have led to decreases in liability insurance premiums and helped mitigate the state's physician shortage. But the jury is still out on whether the reforms have helped to improve quality and patient access.

Despite the reluctance of many Democrats to pursue liability caps, the concept of health courts has attracted some bipartisan support and the backing of President Obama. As proposed, such courts would consider only medical malpractice cases, similar to the workers' compensation system. A March 2 editorial in Roll Call by analysts at Washington, D.C., think tank Third Way asserts that health courts "can serve as the backbone for fundamental malpractice reform." Whether legislators will support a strong, single spine or more fragmented, state-based systems, however, remains to be seen.

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