Curb lawsuits to reform health care

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Austin Business Journal

There’s an old joke about the boy who goes to the doctor and uses his index finger to point all over his body, explaining “it hurts here, here, here and here.” The doctor sighs and says, “Son, your finger is broken.” This poor kid was looking for his ailment in all the wrong places. That’s exactly what’s happening in Washington as our leaders grapple with health care reform. They’re missing what’s really broken.

Our leaders in Washington want to talk about meaningful reform and reining in costs to make health care more affordable, but they refuse to address the elephant in the room — lawsuits and liability costs and the enormous “surcharge” they place on America’s health care.

Not only unwilling to contain existing lawsuits, the president and Congress appear committed to bringing on even more lawsuits by stripping away liability protections for manufacturers of highly regulated products like medicines and medical equipment. Even if manufacturers follow every rule and regulation set by the government, they’d still be subject to an avalanche of lawsuits. Consumer prices would skyrocket as manufacturers grapple with a maze of conflicting state by state regulations and an onslaught of random lawsuits. This personal injury lawyer bonanza does not bode well for our health or our wallets.

Rampant — and often baseless — medical liability lawsuits have spawned a culture of defensive medicine where physicians protect themselves by routinely ordering unnecessary and expensive procedures, adding needless costs to the system. In fact, 10 cents of every dollar spent on health care in the United States is driven by medical liability, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

American voters clearly see the err of this thinking. According to a recent national survey, the majority of voters believe that the most effective way to lower health care costs is to reform medical liability laws to reduce the number of baseless lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. Simply put, without legal reforms, you can’t make a dent in health care costs.

Washington should look to Texas to see how access to health care improves when medical liability reforms take hold. Thanks to changes approved by Texas voters in 2003, we now have sensible medical liability laws that have allowed doctors and other health care professionals to spend more time in the exam room and not the court room.

Congress should listen to what Texans already know: Until you fix the medical liability lawsuit problem, the health care system will stay broken.

Dr. C. Mark Chassay is co-manager of Texas Sports & Family Medicine and Board Member of the Central Texas CALA in Austin.