Medical malpractice payouts continued to fall across the country last year and account for a minuscule portion of health-care costs, the watchdog group Public Citizen reports.

Using data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), the group found the number of payouts declined for the third straight year. In addition, the 11,037 payments recorded in 2008 were 31% fewer than the average number of payments recorded by the NPDB in all previous years.

That doesn’t mean safety efforts have been successful, the report asserts. “There is no evidence that medical errors have declined. Rather than pointing to safer medical care, the reduction almost certainly means that there are ever more malpractice victims not receiving compensation.”

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The cost of the malpractice liability system, measured broadly by adding all malpractice insurance premiums, fell to less than 0.6% of the $2.1 trillion in total national health-care costs in 2006, the most recent data available, according to the Public Citizen analysis. The cost of actual malpractice payments fell to less than one-fifth of 1% of all health-care costs in 2006.

Public Citizen doubts national tort reform will have much impact on spiraling health costs. “Any way you measure it, medical liability accounts for less than 1% of the country’s health-care costs, and the vast majority of victims receive no compensation whatsoever,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division.

Click here for the full report.