In tonight’s address to Congress, President Obama will make one last effort to secure Republican support for a comprehensive health care reform bill by embracing tort reform. “The President will talk about meaningful malpractice reform tonight. What I hope that does is cause Republicans to understand that we’re close to getting something truly significant done for the American people,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained during an interview on Fox News.
Obama has expressed support for malpractice reform during a private meeting with the American Medical Association in June and later announced that “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.” But while Republicans have argued that malpractice reform is the best way to lower health care costs (it’s not, malpractice costs make up just 0.46 percent of all health care spending), the Democrats have rarely addressed the issue.
So what will the President say about malpractice reform? Well, back in 2005, Obama joined Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton “in proposing legislation aimed at reducing both medical errors and lawsuits through a program known as Sorry Works, rooted in the idea that injured patients value an apology as much as money.”
Obama and Clinton rejected the Republican solution of simply capping malpractice claims and explained that real malpractice reform must balance the interests of doctors and patients. “98,000 deaths in the United States each year result from medical errors,” they wrote “but more than 90 percent of these deaths are the result of failed systems and procedures, not the negligence of physicians. Given this finding, we need to shift our response from placing blame on individual providers or health care organizations to developing systems for improving the quality of our patient-safety practices.”
The legislation would have given physicians who disclosed their errors “certain protections from liability within the context of the program, in order to promote a safe environment for disclosure”:
To improve both patient safety and the medical liability climate, the tort system must achieve four goals: reduce the rates of preventable patient injuries, promote open communication between physicians and patients, ensure patients access to fair compensation for legitimate medical injuries, and reduce liability insurance premiums for health care providers. Addressing just one of these issues is not sufficient. Capping malpractice payments may ameliorate rising premium rates, but it would do nothing to prevent unsafe practices or ensure the provision of fair compensation to patients.
Doctors are rightfully concerned about raising malpractice premiums and Obama may also argue that his reform would enhance the practice of evidence-based medicine and create safe harbors for providers who follow best practices.
This afternoon, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), Chairman of the House Republican Conference, challenged Obama to include malpractice reform in his health care bill. “Why not bring about reasonable restrictions and limits on medical malpractice claims to end the era of defensive medicine?” Pence asked on the floor of the House. Now that Obama has put the idea back on the table, will Pence support reform?