Sarah Palin issued a strong call for tort reform from her Facebook platform this morning, calling on Congress and the American people to fix what’s specifically wrong in the US health-care system rather than break everything that works. Palin winningly refers to the deluge of frivolous legal actions against her as an example of a tort system run amuck, and ironically uses a Bill Clinton stock phrase, “I feel your pain.” She also has documented her argument rather thoroughly:
President Obama’s health care “reform” plan has met with significant criticism across the country. Many Americans want change and reform in our current health care system. We recognize that while we have the greatest medical care in the world, there are major problems that we must face, especially in terms of reining in costs and allowing care to be affordable for all. However, as we have seen, current plans being pushed by the Democratic leadership represent change that may not be what we had in mind — change which poses serious ethical concerns over the government having control over our families’ health care decisions. In addition, the current plans greatly increase costs of health care, while doing lip service toward controlling costs.
We need to address a REAL bipartisan reform proposition that will have REAL impacts on costs and quality of patient care.
As Governor of Alaska, I learned a little bit about being a target for frivolous suits and complaints (Please, do I really need to footnote that?). I went my whole life without needing a lawyer on speed-dial, but all that changes when you become a target for opportunists and people with no scruples. Our nation’s health care providers have been the targets of similar opportunists for years, and they too have found themselves subjected to false, frivolous, and baseless claims. To quote a former president, “I feel your pain.”
So what can we do? First, we cannot have health care reform without tort reform. The two are intertwined. For example, one supposed justification for socialized medicine is the high cost of health care. As Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently noted, “If Mr. Obama is serious about lowering costs, he’ll need to reform the economic structures in medicine—especially programs like Medicare.”  Two examples of these “economic structures” are high malpractice insurance premiums foisted on physicians (and ultimately passed on to consumers as “high health care costs”) and the billions wasted on defensive medicine.
Defensive medicine comprises as much as 10% of the total cost of American health care. One study puts the average annual cost of defensive medicine as high as $2,000 for a family of four. Estimates range between $100-$178 billion per year of defensive medicine costs.
To give a comparison, Obama has proposed to save $177 billion by killing off Medicare Advantage, a highly successful public-private partnership that expands coverage and simplifies billing for both patients and providers in the Medicare system. Tort reform would eliminate the need for those cuts, and probably would also alleviate the wait times currently experienced as defensive medicine vanishes and more resources are available. Doctors could focus on health rather than liability.
Why hasn’t Congress addressed tort reform? For one thing, many of the Representatives and Senators on Capitol Hill are attorneys themselves. Even more, the trial lawyers give a lot of money to Democrats, who currently control both chambers of Congress. We’re unlikely to see tort reform in the health-care industry, and especially not across-the-board tort reform, which would take a big burden off the American economy (except, of course, in the ambulance-chasing industry).
But it’s a good issue to raise, especially since this administration and Congress says that we can’t do reform incrementally but must do it comprehensively. It can’t be comprehensive while leaving tort reform off the table.