What Are the Issues Surrounding Medical Liability Reform?

After decades of controversy, medical liability continues to be at the center of an emotional debate over U.S. health care costs and patient safety.

Some policy-makers, backed by physicians and insurers, advocate tough federal limits on medical malpractice lawsuits as a means to curb the nation’s relentlessly rising health spending. Other policymakers, backed by plaintiff attorneys, consumer advocates, and some researchers, say restricting suits does little to contain costs and punishes patients injured by medical negligence.

The evidence suggests that medical liability generates direct costs, such as higher liability insurance premiums, and indirect costs, such as the extra medical services ordered to protect providers from liability risk. Together, these costs total nearly $60 billion a year.

Premiums for medical liability insurance have remained stable since 2006 and most states have taken action to curb damage awards or attorneys fees in liability suits.

This Health Policy Snapshot, published online in January 2012, explores the costs implications of medical malpractice suits in the health care system.

Read more from RWJF's Health Policy Snapshot series.

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billion is spent each year on medical liability