At the very least, tort reform appears to have dramatically curbed the number and cost of claims in Texas. From 2003 to 2007, malpractice payments to patients dropped by two-thirds. Liability premiums paid by doctors also have fallen, by an average of 27.5%, and more insurers have rejoined the market. “We are now back to, I would say, a pretty healthy environment,” McDaniel says.
Hospitalist Gregory Johnson, MD, chair of the Texas Medical Association’s Young Physicians Section, moved to Texas in 2002, just before the reforms were approved. “The best part about Prop 12 passing is the fact that Texas is now seen as a very physician-friendly environment,” says Johnson, who now serves as a Houston-based regional chief medical officer for Tacoma, Wash.-based Sound Physicians. The significant drops in malpractice insurance rates and lawsuits have made it far easier for him to recruit out-of-state doctors. “That basically comes off any physician’s radar as a particular concern.”
Most Texas hospitals and healthcare systems do not employ physicians directly. Instead, they contract or affiliate with private or nonprofit physicians groups. Due to that arrangement, Dr. Johnson explains, the cost of insurance premiums “becomes a much more individually based and personal issue because it’s coming out of an individual’s pocket, or a group’s pocket.”
From his own experience, Dr. Johnson says, he believes hospitalists are more willing to go to underserved parts of the state because of tort reform. Three years ago, he helped start Amarillo Hospitalist Services, a program that began with three doctors and has since grown to eight, all affiliated with Northwest Texas Hospital.
Of course, hospitalists appear to be thriving in major metropolitan areas, too. Dr. Johnson’s new employer, Sound Physicians, now operates three HM programs within Houston’s Memorial Hermann Healthcare System and employs about two-dozen physicians in all. More are on the way. “We’re actively hiring,” he says.
Statistics from the Texas Medical Board and Department of State Health Services confirm the anecdotal evidence that a more doctor-friendly Texas is paying dividends. Even so, they paint a somewhat more complicated picture than some commentators have portrayed in recent editorials. Doctors have indeed flocked to the state—some 11,000 since 2002 alone, an increase of 31%. That rate has far outpaced the state’s overall population growth of 14.2%.
But not all areas of the state have benefited equally from the influx.
Starr County, the third-poorest county in the U.S. based on per capita income, is among those that have fared well since 2002. Overall, its number of doctors increased from 14 to 24, a net increase of 71%, as its population rose by a projected 17%. But the next five poorest counties in Texas, accounting for nearly 86,000 residents in 2002, lost six doctors during the same time period—a 12.5% decline, even as their collective population rose by a projected 10.2%. Contrary to some public pronouncements, tort reform alone has not solved the chronic shortage of doctors in poor rural areas.
A withering report released in December by Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, offers a harsher assessment, concluding that Texas’ “experiment with medical liability caps has failed” (www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7721). The report suggests that Texas’ dead-last ranking in percentage of uninsured residents (25%) and the doctor shortage in rural areas have actually grown worse since tort reform. Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance has more than doubled, while the cost of healthcare also has increased at nearly double the national average, other metrics that led to the organization’s vote of no confidence.