Tort reformers like to talk a lot about how the threat of malpractice suits raises health care costs by forcing doctors to practice “defensive medicine”—the ordering of unnecessary tests, procedures, and prescriptions in an attempt to protect themselves against a possible negligence lawsuit.
In a 2008 AMA survey, they remind us, a majority of the doctors who responded admitted to practicing defensive medicine—a number that translates, the AMA calculated, to $1.4 billion more spent annually on health care. If our doctors weren’t threatened into doing this, we’d all save loads of money and our national health crisis would be over.
Are the tort reformers right? Well, let’s look at Texas. Several years ago, the state passed a stringent medical malpractice law that capped awards for pain and suffering at $250,000, and brought the number of malpractice lawsuits down dramatically.
So the cost of health care in Texas must also be down, you suppose, since doctors don’t face the same malpractice threats as the rest of the country. Eh, No. In fact, Texas is home to three of the top ten most expensive cities in the country to receive health care: McAllen, Harlingen and Corpus Christi. In each of these cities, every Medicare patient is costing the country more than $10,000 a year (a couple thousand more than the national average).
So if defensive medicine against the threat of malpractice suits isn’t driving up costs, what is?
“Come on,” the general surgeon finally said. “We all know these arguments are [BS]. There is overutilization here, pure and simple.” Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services, and procedures.
The surgeon came to McAllen in the mid-nineties, and since then, he said, “the way to practice medicine has changed completely. Before, it was about how to do a good job. Now it is about ‘How much will you benefit?’ ” –Atul Gawande, The NewYorker
While tort reform like Texas’ won’t improve the cost of our health care, changing our charge-per-service structure just might.