Curbing medical lawsuits: What Obama really means

The president gave a nod to Republicans with his pledge to tackle medical malpractice. But he's talking about it in a different way. Here's a glimpse of what's ahead.

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By Jennifer Liberto, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- As President Obama turns up the heat on health care reform, one new and surprising detail to emerge is his pledge to tackle medical malpractice.

"I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs," Obama said Wednesday night.

Obama's decision to wade into the issue has some insiders scratching their heads, because cutting down on medical malpractice lawsuits is a Republican tenet.

But the president's idea of reducing health care costs by cutting down on lawsuits isn't the same as Republicans, who want to cap lawsuit damage awards. Instead, Obama plans to run with an idea left over from his predecessor's administration and fund pilot projects in states that trumpet patient safety.

In one approach, the Department of Health and Human Services would fund projects aimed at limiting lawsuits by encouraging doctors and clinics to disclose accidents early and apologize to patients when appropriate.

Experts point to the University of Michigan Health Care system as a potential model. Malpractice claims in the system dropped by 55% between 1999 and 2006.

"If we make a mistake, we'll move quickly to apologize and compensate that patient. But if we didn't make a mistake, we talk to the patient and explain," said Richard Boothman, chief risk officer for the University of Michigan system.

Politics of malpractice

As the Obama administration knows well, medical malpractice can be a sticky issue. When the discussion centers on lawsuit damages, it pits two deep-pocketed lobbying groups against each other: trial lawyers and big business.

Advocates like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and hospital and doctor groups say that lawsuits, especially frivolous ones, drive up the cost of health care by increasing the cost of doctors' malpractice insurance.

Trial lawyers counter that limiting their ability to hold doctors and hospitals accountable for mistakes won't reduce costs.

More neutral agencies like the Congressional Budget Office say that efforts to curb medical malpractice lawsuits can prompt cheaper malpractice insurance premiums but don't really affect health care spending.

In June, Obama told the American Medical Association that he was not an advocate of lawsuit caps, which he said can "be unfair to people who've been wrongfully harmed."

Despite his legal background, Obama hasn't always sided with lawyers on legislation targeting the court system.

In 2005, he voted with Senate Republicans to pass a law that limited attorneys' fees in class action suits and shifted most of those cases into federal courts to prevent attorneys from seeking more favorable state-court venues.

On Wednesday, the president made it clear that he brought up medical malpractice as a sign of good will to the "Republican side of the aisle."

That irks some left-leaning Democrats. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he didn't see the need to address the issue, which is often called "tort reform."

"But you know, if the president wants to discuss tort reform -- fine. I am not going to die on that hill," Ellison said.

Details and next steps

The next wave of controversy depends on the kinds of medical malpractice pilot projects the Obama administration agrees to fund.

If the projects aim to stop and prevent medical errors and accidents before they happen, the trial lawyers' lobbying group, the American Association for Justice, is on board. If the measures limit liability, that's another story.

"If you really want to solve the health care crisis, you need to focus your efforts on saving lives," said Linda Lipsen, the AAJ's top lobbyist. "That's where the most cost savings are."

The American Medical Association was more guarded in its reaction, but the doctors lobbying group applauded Obama's intent to address malpractice lawsuits as a way of cutting health care costs.

An administration official said the types of things they're looking to fund include two proposals contained in one of the health care reform bills now in Congress.

One resembles what the University of Michigan already does, where hospitals and clinics disclose errors and apologize when at fault. Meanwhile doctors are well-insured against lawsuits.

"I've the luxury of saying to our physicians, no matter how big a case is, how bad a case is, 'You're completely insured and your personal assets are not at stake,' " Boothman said. "You can't ask them them to be totally honest when they have such things at stake."

The other provision would require patients who want to file lawsuits to get a panel of experts or doctors to agree their lawsuit has merit before they go to court.

But if the Obama administration is truly thinking of running with Bush administration ideas, they'll look at a 2002 Institute of Medicine study aimed at cutting malpractice suits.

That study offered recommendations that have yet to surface in current health care policy discussions.

In one, the federal government would offer backup insurance to provider groups who disclose mistakes and compensate patients for avoidable injuries. But the report also recommended that participating states limit pain and suffering awards.

The other option gave health care providers "immunity," or protection against lawsuits if they agreed to participate in a government-run administrative system that compensated injured patients, mostly based on a formula.

William Sage, a doctor and attorney who advised the Institute of Medicine, said the 2002 recommendations fit well with the president's pledge, because they attack malpractice lawsuits from the bedside instead of the courtroom.

Sage said he expects that such medical malpractice reforms will go beyond pilot projects and make it into final legislation.

"This year it's different," said Sage, vice provost for health affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "We have to have major long-term changes, so malpractice proposals have to appeal more broadly. They have to gain the confidence of a large number of medical physicians and make them think about their work differently without always being afraid of being sued." To top of page

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