Obama Promotes Malpractice Myth

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 7:41 AM EDT

The New York Times reports this morning that President Obama is considering burning his trial lawyer allies to get health care reform passed. That is, he said he would support restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits because he believes it would help reduce health care costs. If Obama really believes cutting lawsuits would save money, he's not as smart as I thought. Doctors have been making this argument for years, as did President George W. Bush, whose administration claimed restricting lawsuits would cut health care costs by $108 billion a year. But there isn't a lick of data to support these claims. The Congressional Budget Office took a look at Bush's assertions and found in 2004 that reducing lawsuit-related costs by 25 or 30 percent would result in only a tiny .4 percent reduction in health care costs. The CBO concluded that the benefits of reducing lawsuits were vastly overblown.

Lawsuits are a natural biproduct of incompetent doctors, who are the source of an inordinate amount of expensive medicine. I've written about this extensively here and here, but just to recap: Preventable medical errors cost the country about $20 billion a year. A tiny number of bad doctors account for the vast majority of malpractice suits. If Obama wants to contain lawsuits and save money, he should propose putting those guys out to pasture. Of course, Obama's lawsuit proposal is designed to court the American Medical Association, which has never seen a bad doctor it couldn't love. Any proposal to weed the incompetents out of the medical profession would probably be a deal breaker.

UPDATE: During his speech on Monday before the AMA convention, Obama talked about cutting back on medical malpractice lawsuits without placing caps on malpractice awards--drawing boos from the crowd. From his prepared speech:

Now, I recognize that it will be hard to make some of these changes [in the health care system] if doctors feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of lawsuits. Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable. That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine, and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines. That’s how we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine reinforcing our current system of more treatment rather than better care.