According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, medical malpractice litigation costs have been steadily declining and are “playing an ever smaller role in health care costs.” The group just released a new report, Medical Malpractice Payments Fall Again in 2009, which documents the trend in malpractice payments. According to Public Citizen:

  • 2009 had the lowest number of payments made on behalf of clinicians since the creation of the National Practitioner Data Bank in 1990.
  • The cumulative value of malpractice payments in 2009 was the lowest since 1999 in unadjusted dollars. If adjusted for inflation, the 2009 numbers were either the lowest or second lowest on record.
  • Medical malpractice litigation’s share of overall health care costs dropped to 0.46%. This includes not only litigation defense costs and payment to plaintiffs, but also liability insurers’ profits and administrative costs.
  • Payments to malpractice victims dropped to 0.14% of all health costs.
  • In the last decade, health care spending rose 83%, while medical malpractice payments fell 8%.

The group went on to note that it believes that “the real problem regarding medical malpractice remains an epidemic of medical errors, with little accountability and few incentives for improvement.” It cited the Institute of Medicine’s report that 44,000 to 98,000 people die each year due to avoidable medical errors, and hinted that this number may actually be greater. For example, according to Public Citizen, the hospital rating company HealthGrades estimated in 2004 that more than 190,000 people die annually because of medical errors. According to the report, in 2009, there were 3,537 medical malpractice payments for deaths due to negligence. Using that number, the group concluded that most deaths resulting from medical negligence did not result in any liability payment.

The report concluded that calls for malpractice liability reform (which are typically grounded by claims about “frivolous lawsuits”) are contradictory to the data that show declining legal costs, declining payments to injured parties, and a low rate of compensation, even for cases resulting in death. “The best course is clear,” the report stated. “Policymakers should reduce the need for redress, not the right to redress. Purported solutions like ‘health courts’ would only cost billions while do nothing to reduce the epidemic of deaths and injuries from medical errors. Reducing medical errors, in contrast, would save lives and money.”