Friday, April 10th, 2009
Newt Gingrich recently published an op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he touted the bounteous effects of tort reform. Tort reform “can jump-start the economy and create new jobs,” Gingrich says. “States that have enacted tort-reform measures have significantly improved access to health care, reduced costs, and strengthened economies.”
If only that were true. But it isn’t.
Gingrich cites Texas tort reform law enacted in 2003, then cites a 2008 study by The Perryman Group that says tort reform has resulted in a half-million new jobs in Texas, an increase in annual personal income of almost $32 billion, “And almost 430,000 previously uninsured Texans now have health insurance.” Wow, that’s great! Those things happened since 2003?
Apparently not. Texans for Lawsuit Reform touts the same study on its site. The study measures results since 1995, not 2003. That’s a bit different.
Governor George W. Bush signed another tort reform act into law in 1995, and when he ran for President in 2000 he called this one of his greatest accomplishments. He made exorbitant claims of the benefits Texans had received from this legislation. But in “Bush Calls Himself Reformer; the Record Shows the Label May Be a Stretch,” published March 20, 2000, Richard A. Oppel and Jim Yardley of the New York Times documented that few of the results Bush claimed for the 1995 law could not be attributed to other causes.
Results from the Perryman Group study showing huge benefits from the 1995 law are widely touted on pro-”tort reform” websites. I couldn’t find the study itself online, however, and cannot comment on its specific findings. I do not know, for example, if the study factors out the general economic expansion of the late 1990s.
But let’s look at what we do know. Gingrich says that since 2003 the cost of physician malpractice insurance in Texas has gone down, and there has been a dramatic increase in the number of physicians moving to Texas. This appears to be true, or at least a number of news stories say it is true.
So this lowered the cost of health care in Texas and made it more accessible, right? Well, no. For several years, Texas has had the highest rate of uninsured citizens in the nation. That rate has continued to rise since 2003, and at times it has risen even faster than the rate of uninsured in the rest of the nation. In 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that Texas health insurance premiums increased by 40 percent from 2001 to 2005, which was the third fastest increase in the nation. So all those physicians moving into Texas may find themselves short of paying patients.
Going back to Newt Gingrich’s op ed — in several places in this piece Gingrich claims that tort reform reduces the rolls of the uninsured and improves access to health care. But the only specific example he gives is Texas, and this is not at all what happened in Texas. The “rolls of the uninsured” have increased. Access to health care is reduced.
I am not saying that “tort reform” caused these things. However, Gingrich is lying when he says “tort reform” will reduce these things. When Gingrich says “If the Pennsylvania legislature were to adopt progressive legal reform, the commonwealth’s taxpayers would save more than $2 billion annually,” one must assume he is pulling these figures out of the same part of his ass where he found lower health care costs in Texas.
Right now, several state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, are considering tort reform measures similar to the one enacted in Texas in 2003. And well-financed interests groups are telling legislators about the wonderful “results” they can expect from tort reform. Voters in those states are being sold the same snake oil that Texans were sold in 2003.
What has tort reform accomplished in Texas? Rightly or wrongly, it has made it more difficult for patients to sue for malpractice. And, as I said, it has lowered physicians’ malpractice premiums. However, it has not made medical care safer.
I’ve written elsewhere about how “tort reform” was promoted by Karl Rove as a killer wedge issue beginning in the 1980s. Manufacturing workers were being exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances, and yes, attorneys were doing very well taking manufacturers to court. But the fact remains that those workers suffered real and severe damage — mesothelioma, for example, as well as asbestosis and other extremely serious diseases.
The Right frames this issue as a struggle between noble medical professionals and greedy, money-grubbing trial lawyers, or honest businessmen and greedy customers with trivial complaints. It should be a struggle for the well-being of citizens, period. Oh, and never believe Newt Gingrich. He lies.
(Cross-posted at Open Salon.)