Health Inc.

Would Malpractice Caps Matter?

No conversation about overhauling health care can get very far before a doctor, just about any doctor, says lawyers and malpractice suits are big reasons health costs are so high. Republicans, even the ones who aren't doctors, generally agree.

stethoscope and gavel i i

Malpractice caps fire up doctors and the GOP. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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stethoscope and gavel

Malpractice caps fire up doctors and the GOP.

iStockphoto.com

On NPR's Morning Edition, Scott Horsley reports on "that old Republican chestnut: cutting down on frivolous lawsuits." Would caps on malpractice make a big difference in costs? Or, perhaps more significantly at the moment, would Democrats attract Republican support for health legislation by adding provisions to limit the liability of doctors?

Bill Bradley, the silky basketball shooter and deal-making New Jersey senator back in the day, suggested a political play to fellow Democrats in a New York Times opinion piece over the weekend: "Combine universal coverage with malpractice tort reform in health care."

Doctors would love it. Dr. Nancy Nielsen, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, said of Bradley's op-ed, "All I could think was from his lips to God's ears."

Skeptics say malpractice reform may be a feel-good remedy for physicians that won't do much for health-care spending. In a Q&A with the New York Times blog Prescriptions, law professor Tom Baker, calls tort reform "a red herring" that won't "accomplish the goal of bringing down costs."

He concedes nobody "has a good handle on defensive medicine costs." But Baker argues doctors often blame defensive medicine for their practice approach when what they're really doing is just going along with the "prevailing standard of care in their region."

So what about the political calculus? Would throwing the malpractice bone the GOP's way get the Democrats much help? A similar tactic worked for Bradley for a tax overhaul in 1980s. But the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn thinks a malpractice trade is unlikely to get traction anytime soon. About the best the administration could hope by playing the tort reform card would be to shore up support from conservative Democrats.

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