Recent Op-Eds

As a new Congress and a new Administration prepare for the upcoming year, health care reform is at the top of the agenda. There will be many proposed solutions to the issues facing the American health care system, and one issue that I hope receives attention is the need for medical malpractice reform. South Dakota is one of several states that has implemented certain caps on lawsuit damages in an effort to control high costs.

Earlier this month I cosponsored once again the Medical Care Access Protection Act, a bill that would create a federal limit on non-economic damages that may be awarded for lawsuits against health care providers. The high cost of lawsuits in many states, along with the extra cost of insurance that physicians are forced to purchase to protect themselves, are passed on to all health care consumers, which dramatically increases health care costs.

Under the bill, the overall limit on non-economic damages would be flexible, but for individual providers or institutions, the cap would be set at $250,000. There would be no limit on other damages, allowing for full recovery from responsible parties for medical expenses and lost wages.

Within the realm of health care reform, cost remains the most crucial issue for families and businesses. Medical malpractice reform will help reduce costs for all health care consumers, and therefore should be included in the broader reform debate. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that the cost of so-called "defensive medicine" was between $70 and $126 billion per year.

Defensive medicine refers to care provided solely as a safeguard against a lawsuit that could put doctors or health care providers out of business. Increased physician expenses also put tremendous pressure on the Medicare program and raises Medicare premiums for beneficiaries. Some estimates say that malpractice reform would save between $17 and $31 billion per year in Medicare costs alone.

Health care reform will be a significant challenge in the new Congress, and real, lasting reform will require a bipartisan effort. Malpractice reform is only part of the broader picture, but it is nonetheless important and merits serious consideration.

As we move forward, it is important for legislators and the new Administration to seek the support of physicians groups like the South Dakota State Medical Association, and other health care providers, institutions, patient's rights groups, and other stakeholders. It is important to consider how state-level caps on lawsuit damages have been effective in reducing costs in many states, and how such provisions can help states to attract and maintain the best doctors.

Abuses in the medical malpractice tort system are an important example of how health care reform in America should be devised with input from doctors and patients, not just trial lawyers. It is my hope that leaders in Congress and the Administration will be open to addressing medical malpractice reform as part of broader health reform efforts.