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Gingrey & Fleming: Medical Liability Bill Key to Health Reform

Just over three months ago, President Barack Obama signed “ObamaCare” into law — with the promise that the reform bill would lower costs, increase access to quality care and preserve the great tradition of American medical care. Clearly, however, as has become more apparent every day since the bill became public law, ObamaCare will have none of these intended effects — due to both what is in the bill and what was left out.

As physicians, we are acutely aware of the need to reform our health care system, particularly as it comes to cost containment. We must ensure that doctors can continue to treat their patients without going out of business, and patients — particularly seniors and those living in low-income households — can find the quality health care that they can afford.

We both came to Congress with health care reform as our principal goal; thus, we have been understandably frustrated with what has happened to date. However, whatever our policy differences may be with the Democratic majority on the substance of health care reform — and they are significant — what continues to disturb both of us is the complete lack of attention paid to medical liability reform. Such common-sense measures could significantly reduce the cost of health care for patients, physicians and our government by reducing needless testing because of defensive medicine. Further, meaningful reform will strengthen the doctor-patient relationship by encouraging collaboration between both parties when a medical incident occurs and could prevent a protracted court battle.

Together we have introduced the MedMal Act of 2010, which will strengthen the ability of doctors and patients to work together outside of a courtroom to address medical incidents. Encouraging early settlement offers for valid medical incidents will allow patients the opportunity to receive compensation in a timely manner and reduce the amount of claims without merit that are filed against providers each year.

The legislation will also strengthen our medical tort system — building off past medical liability reform standards — by protecting the benevolent gestures of patients and providers, requiring that expert witness testimony in all cases actually come from an expert, ensuring that each party in a lawsuit is responsible for his or her own fault but not the fault of others, and creating safe harbors for providers who prescribe medications appropriately.

Attorneys, insurance companies and hospital administrators today advise and sometimes even require that health care providers avoid verbally addressing a medical incident with their patients because the simple act of comforting a patient can be considered an acknowledgement of fault in a court of law. Because of this fact — and other breakdowns in the doctor-patient relationship caused by a lack of meaningful medical liability reform — many patients see the court system as their only recourse. We believe there is a better way forward.

As medical providers, we feel an obligation to ensure that our fellow physicians can work with their patients — outside of a court — to address valid medical incidents instead of relying exclusively on the courts. Furthermore, reforming our current court system will reduce legal abuse and increase the likelihood that justice will truly be served.

Thus, the question still remains: Why did health care reform not include meaningful medical liability reform? Unfortunately, we believe that former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean got it right when he said at a town hall meeting last year that “the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers.”

Repealing ObamaCare and reforming our health care system in a responsible manner continues to be our primary goal — a goal that our constituents sent us here to achieve. Thus, we remain committed to passing comprehensive medical liability reform as part of the solution. With a savings of at least $200 billion annually in defensive medicine costs, we can see no reason not to act — immediately.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) is an obstetrician/gynecologist and chairman of the GOP Doctors Caucus. Rep. John Fleming (La.) is a family physician and vice chairman of the caucus.

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