The head of the national trial lawyers’ association may think health courts are “bad policy and bad for patients,” but America’s civil justice system is doing such a poor job of providing reliable justice in medical malpractice lawsuits that President Obama believes it’s time to give special health courts a chance.
In the 2012 budget President Obama proposed to Congress, he recommends significant funding to encourage the creation of special health courts around the country. He has proposed $250 million in grants to help states implement specific reforms like health courts that are aimed at eliminating abuse of the courts in cases of alleged medical malpractice.
I believe the president’s willingness to part ways on this issue with one of his party’s top political contributors speaks volumes about the seriousness of the medical liability problem in America. The enormous increase in the number of lawsuits against physicians over the past three decades has dramatically changed the practice of medicine, and health care in general, for the worse.
Studies show that doctors increasingly practice defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits. Such defensive medicine may add as much as $126 billion to the cost of health care every year according to one study by the federal government in 2003. Just think how many more people could be given health care if the money spent on defensive medicine instead went to primary and preventive care!
A few years ago, I worked with the New York City-based group, Common Good, to increase awareness of health courts across the country and to build support among a wide range of groups that have an interest in this issue. Since then, an impressive list of organizations comprised of medical professionals, patients and job providers has come together to endorse the health court plan developed by Common Good and the Harvard School of Public Health.
You can get detailed information about health courts here, but in a nutshell, they would use judges specially trained in health care, similar to how workers’ compensation courts, tax tribunals and maritime courts use judges and magistrates specially trained in those issues. The health courts would set precedents that provide more reliable justice across the board.
Common Good founder, Philip Howard, pointed out in The Atlantic that doctors’ universal distrust of the nation’s demeaning, adversarial, and unreliable system of adjudicating claims of malpractice has driven many physicians out of medical practice altogether. Click here to see an excellent short video produced by the Center for America about the kind of disastrous effect that rampant medical liability litigation in Philadelphia has had on the availability of maternity care there.
Polls show strong public support for medical liability reform, and I am hopeful the president’s budget proposal will breath life into work being done to create health courts. Work on other reforms like caps on non-economic damages must continue, too, but it is time to give health courts a chance so that doctors and their patients can finally get a system of justice that is reliable, efficient and fair.