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HomeNewsMedical
Published: Wednesday, 1/12/2005

Health costs rated bigger concern than malpractice awards

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Most Americans believe lowering the cost of health care and insurance - not reducing jury awards in malpractice lawsuits - should be the top health-care priority for President Bush and Congress, according to a survey released yesterday.

The administration has cited medical litigation as a main culprit driving up health care costs, and Mr. Bush has said putting caps on some jury awards is a top priority in his second term.

The nonprofit health policy group Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a nationwide random survey on the public's view about health care and found it and insurance were the number one priority identified by Americans, with 63 percent saying it should be the government's top health priority. Of the 12 items surveyed, reducing jury awards in malpractice lawsuits ranked 11th, cited as the top priority by 26 percent of the public.

Toledo small business owner Tom Volk wasn't surprised by the findings.

"I would have to say medical costs are out of control," he said. "Medical malpractice, while a lot of it is no doubt shameful, it's hard to see it as an individual. All I see is what I'm paying."

Mr. Volk said he and his employees worry more about rising co-pays and premiums, which are getting them less health care coverage, not more. Mr. Volk, who's owner of Ohio Belting and Transmission, spoke to The Blade last summer for a two-part series on health care costs and said yesterday he's become more convinced they are a problem.

"If my business closes, one major factor will be I can't cover medical expenses," he said.

Tim Maglione, an Ohio State Medical Association spokesman, said it's reasonable that most Americans cite health care costs as the top concern; his group's own polling finds that. However, he said high jury awards are a reason for the high costs.

"In reality, the two issues are connected," he said. "The broken liability system is in many ways driving increases in the cost of health care."

OSMA, which represents many of the state's physicians, has pushed for caps on noneconomic jury awards. It feels the rising malpractice premiums doctors pay, especially those in high-risk specialties, have forced many physicians to retire early, leave Ohio, or stop doing risky procedures. Attorneys and other have criticized that stance, saying there's no hard evidence any of that is occurring.

Two years ago, the GOP-controlled General Assembly capped jury awards for pain, suffering, and other noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at $1 million. Mr. Maglione said that's a good first step, though the legislation will need to survive a state supreme court challenge to have a significant effect on malpractice premiums.

Mr. Bush wants a nationwide $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases. Such damages are awarded for physical and emotional pain and suffering, for example.

How big an effect caps would have on malpractice premiums, and thus overall health care costs, has been questioned. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that malpractice costs in 2002 accounted for less than 2 percent of overall health care spending in the United States. Each year, the U.S. spends about $1.5 trillion on health care. Others have criticized the large amount the country spends on administrative costs of medical care, about $300 billion annually.

Mollyann Brodie, Kaiser's director of public opinion and media research, said while "health care costs are a much bigger issue in peoples' minds," much of the public is receptive to limiting jury awards in malpractice cases. The Kaiser survey found 63 percent of the public favors such a cap. However, many favor higher caps than Mr. Bush: 53 percent said $500,000 or more, 31 percent said $250,000 or less, and 17 percent not answering or saying they didn't know.

Kaiser's information was based on a November telephone survey of 1,396 Americans. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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