When the House voted to replace the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”), the public response was far from welcoming. But if opposition thought the disappointment ended there, they would be sorely mistaken. The Republican-proposed “American Health Care Act” is only 1 of several proposed reforms seeking to lower spending on federal health programs – a package that now includes the poisonous bill H.R. 1215.
This new bill, otherwise known as the Protecting Access to Care Act of 2017, aims to put caps on medical malpractice awards for parties injured, maimed, or killed by avoidable medical errors. The aim, supporters say, is to discourage frivolous lawsuits, limit unnecessary medical procedures, and reduce overall healthcare costs. But the implications could be much more far-reaching than this.
Whether or not the bill will pass and be signed into law remains uncertain right now, but Trump’s senior advisers firmly recommend it. If the bill does indeed become reality, for what should victims of medical malpractice be prepared?
Protecting Not Patients, Just Doctors
In 2013, a particularly appalling case of medical malpractice befell a patient in Pennsylvania, who underwent surgery to remove an atrophied testicle only to wake up with the other 1 missing. So began a 4-year lawsuit which culminated last month in a $620,000 award for pain and suffering.
However, this patient is 1 of many who will be cheated out of fair compensation by the new bill, which caps “non-economic” (non-quantifiable) damages at $250,000. While many states already have non-economic award limits in place, the bill would enforce limits in others despite the fact that tort reform is usually enacted at the state level.
As if that weren’t concerning enough for people who have suffered at the hands of negligent doctors, other provisions of the bill worry consumer advocates. For example, consumers would have only 1 year to bring a lawsuit after discovering – or, in the eyes of the law, after they should have discovered – the injury.
“That is a drastic change,” said Joanne Doroshow, Executive Director of the consumer advocacy organization called Center for Justice of Democracy. “Almost no state has a statute of limitations that severe.”
A Mixed Response
House lawmakers voted 218-210 to narrowly pass the bill Wednesday, many votes of which came from conservatives in support GOP healthcare reform efforts. All House Democrats opposed the bill – but it’s important to note that 19 Republicans did as well.
While patient safety advocates argue this legislation would refuse victims of medical negligence the justice they deserve, they and opposing conservatives are also unhappy about imposing federal standards on tort law.
“The federal government doesn’t really have a legitimate role to play here,” said Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a general surgeon in Phoenix and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. Singer argues conservatives are putting too much weight in tort reform to bring down healthcare costs.
Nevertheless, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would do just that, by reducing medical liability insurance premiums and pressure faced by healthcare providers at high risk of being sued. Ultimately, this would reduce deficits by almost $50 Billion in 10 years.
What Does This Mean for Victims?
While the bill’s supporters like the idea of releasing healthcare providers from the burden of defensive medicine, this argument doesn’t actually stand for much at all. According to research, medical liability costs make up no more than 2.5 percent of national healthcare spending.
Is this negligible proportion worth putting inappropriate limitations on justice for medical malpractice? Not likely, critics say. The White House’s recommendations to offload “a significant burden on healthcare providers” is a clear insult to malpractice victims, not to mention those who benefit from government-subsidized programs such as Medicare or Medicaid.
And the consequences aren’t only financial – they may open the door to increased medical errors and allow negligent doctors to walk free.
“Even if [the bill] applied only to doctors and hospitals, recent studies clearly establish that its provisions would lead to more deaths and injuries, and increased healthcare costs due to a ‘broad relaxation of care,’” wrote patient advocate groups in a letter urging leaders against the bill.
“Add to this nursing home and pharmaceutical industry liability limitations, significantly weakening incentives for these industries to act safely,” they continued, “and untold numbers of additional death, injuries and costs are inevitable and unacceptable.”