Is now the time for tort reform? Cardiologists offer potential solutions

These days, the political establishment—in the United States and much of Europe—seems to be a little less established. Amid such upheaval, three prominent cardiologists are asking a simple question, “Is now the time to pursue tort reform?”

In the latest issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Hadley Wilson, MD, chair of the ACC’s Board of Governors, and two authors penned a Leadership Letter exploring what may be done in reforming medical malpractice lawsuits—in part because such change will have a significant impact on cardiologists.

“Cardiovascular surgeons and neurosurgeons are at the highest risk [to face medical malpractice suits], with pediatricians at the lowest risk,” wrote Wilson et al. “Unfortunately, the current system of handling these claims and determining medical professional liability (MPL) is seriously flawed. Most claims take an average of four years or more to be resolved.”

This extended timeline, the authors argue, is detrimental to both patients with valid claims—who will have to wait years and lose significant amounts of money to litigation fees—and many clinicians who are found not to be negligent.

Wilson and colleagues point to the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act as a possible direction for tort reform. The legislation is modeled after changes made in California in the 1970s and '80s. The act would limit losses covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance supporting Affordable Care Act plans. The HEALTH Act proposes a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering.

Currently, states are divided on such limits. Colorado, Kansas and Texas have caps between $250,000 and $300,000. Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, however, do not limit such damages.

“Imbalances exist primarily because state legislatures are so heavily staffed and controlled by the plaintiff bar,” wrote Wilson et al. “States including California and Texas have seen physicians and local chambers of commerce work together and create a more balanced perspective between both parties to the claim. Unfortunately, it is not that way in many states.”

The authors outlined two goals for changes in medical tort law:

1. Noneconomic damages should be capped, similar to laws in California and Texas. Damages for negligence should align with costs for subsequent medical care and any lost wages. Large settlements in the eight figures should not occur.

2. Plaintiff attorney fees should be capped. Such limits would allow for funds to be distributed to the injured party while ensuring the attorney is compensated appropriately. Attorney fees tied to a percentage of the total award may lead to a lawyer operating for profit instead of in a client’s best interest.

The entire letter can be read here.