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Among the crowds gathering at health care town halls, there’s an undercurrent of anger by people who are relying on misinformation to halt any true reform. One of the common myths is that the only change our health care system really needs is tort reform. While some like to tout the perceived "success" of tort reform in their states, the evidence belies their assertion.

A recent Washington Independent article took issue with the push to promote tort reform as a health care panacea. The piece, entitled “Tort Reform Unlikely to Cut Health Care Costs”, cites academics like Harvard’s Amitabh Chandra and University of Pennsylvania’s Tom Baker in arguing that tort reform is merely a distraction from what truly ails our current health care system. In fact, Michele Mello, a professor of Law and Public Health at Harvard, tells the Independent that “If you were to list the top five or ten things that you could do to bring down health care costs [tort reform] would not be on the list.” [Also see article in the Atlantic]

While tort reformers like to argue that fear of lawsuits cause doctors to engage in “defensive medicine,” adding billions of dollars to the cost of health care each year, the evidence doesn’t support their claim. The majority of evidence suggesting that doctors act defensively to protect themselves from lawsuits is anecdotal. The Congressional Budget Office has said that it’s difficult to put a number on the cost of so-called “defensive medicine,” but that it would likely be minimal. What’s more, the current fee-for-service structure of our system actually incentivizes the ordering of unnecessary tests.

Fixating on the legal system not only distracts from the true causes of the high cost of health care in this country, but also ignores the larger issue of patient safety. As many as 98,000 people die every year because of medical errors, which adds a great deal of expense to the system. If instances of medical negligence decreased, so would the number of injured patients who need to seek legal recourse. Limiting the legal rights of patients would do nothing but hamper the ability of patients, injured through no fault of their own, to seek redress. And this is not something any of us can call “reform.”

AAJ has created a whole primer that has the real facts on medical negligence and its role in the health care debate. Visit to learn more.


  1. Gravatar for Mike Bryant

    The facts don't seem to get in their way at all. Clearly there was a push last week to use the old Bush/Rove tactic to go after lawyers. Thankfully, they aren't in charge. We need to keep focus on the real stories.

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