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Is The GOP Cooling On Tort Reform?

When I debated him last year, Rep. Mike Burgess (R-TX) — the chairman of the Congressional Healthcare Caucus — insisted that tort reform presented one of the best solutions to lowering health care costs. But now, in light of a new study which finds that malpractice adds just 2.4% to health spending, Burgess may be softening his rhetoric — and if that’s any indication of where the party is as a whole, it may suggest that the GOP is willing to reconsider its favorite cost prescription.

Healthwatch’s Mike Lillis has the story:

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) argued that the cost of malpractice to the healthcare system is “a huge sum of money,” but also conceded that limiting malpractice claims won’t translate into instant healthcare savings.

“Defensive medicine is a learned methodology, and one that cannot be unlearned quickly, and I believe this contributes significantly to the reason why costs do not decrease quickly and steeply immediately after medical liability reforms are passed,” he said in an e-mail. “Our nation’s healthcare system is very complex, and I have never suggested that medical liability reform is a silver bullet.”

The authors of the new Health Affairs study point out that “physician and insurer groups like to collapse all conversations about cost growth in health care to malpractice reform, while their opponents trivialize the role of defensive medicine.” Burgess is both a physician and a Republican. He’s from a state that has capped non-economic damages but has seen no corresponding decrease in health spending. When I debated him, he (like the whole of the GOP) insisted that caps should be a big part of the solution. These statements seems to be far more reflective of the literature.

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The health care law does try to address malpractice costs. It “includes some pilot programs to test alternative systems for settling malpractice cases” and while those projects have been authorized but not yet funded, HHS has distributed $20 million in development grants and planning grants “to states and health care systems” developing ways to reduce malpractice costs. My sense is that it’s easy for politicians to argue that the government can or should do more on this side of reform and it probably should. But providers also have a responsibility to begin adopting innovative solutions (i.e. Sorry Works programs) without waiting for lawmakers to act. The hospitals that received the HHS grants are leading the way in testing successful alternative models and if the GOP is really moving away from its caps-centric focus, it’s the kind of programs Republicans and Democrats can both champion.