Tort Reform Will Improve Access to Care and Lower Costs

By Robert Couch, MD

Robert Couch, MD

It happens every day in Kentucky’s health care system. You are sick and want to see a physician, but there is a long wait—sometimes days, weeks or even months. Instead of waiting, perhaps you go to the emergency room, where costs are significantly higher and large crowds often await treatment.
Once treatment is received, you may be told additional tests are needed to rule out other more serious conditions. This means more costs in the form of high deductibles, more time spent away from family or work and more emotional stress awaiting results that may not reveal any problems.

I know this story all too well because I practice emergency medicine and experience it every day. Welcome to Kentucky’s medical system, imposed on us by a legal system that refuses to move out of the judicial “dark ages.”

Kentucky is the land of epidemics: poor health outcomes and increased health care costs due to high rates of heart disease, obesity and drug abuse. Kentucky’s antiquated legal liability system is another contributing factor. The fear of being wrongfully sued hangs over the entire medical system, forcing increased and unnecessary costs upon Kentuckians.

The medical profession is all about helping people. Unfortunately, in this process, mistakes and unforeseen events can happen. Those mistakes should be compensated to the patient. But the threat of legal action forces patients and society to pay too much for tests and procedures that in other states would be deemed unnecessary because of more modern forms of patient financial recovery. In Kentucky, much needed legislation is pending that would create a similar system.

Independent medical review panels consisting of three medical experts, picked by both the patient and the medical provider, would render an expert opinion as to whether a mistake occurred. This is a speedier and more efficient process for everyone, including the patient since it would be given great weight in any malpractice litigation, forcing quicker settlements or dismissals. It would also not prevent the patient from still pursuing an action in court if they choose.

Other states that have created similar systems by passing “tort reform” also find it easier to entice physicians and other medical professionals to practice there. Unfortunately, the number of physicians created each year in this country is limited, meaning states compete for those who are available. Physicians often choose to practice in states that have tort reform because they know they can more adequately and efficiently treat patients without the fear of an unjustified lawsuit.

Kentucky’s system of fear, high cost and bad health will get much worse as Medicare and other insurers pay for treatment that is inefficiently delivered. Kentuckians will not fare well in such a system without tort reform.

I try to recruit physicians all the time, only to lose out to tort reform friendly states like Indiana or Tennessee. A recent Louisville Courier-Journal article noted that health care jobs will be good for Louisville because, nationally, health care jobs stimulate job growth in other industries. But it will not and cannot happen here without our elected leaders in Frankfort passing common sense legal liability reforms.

Lowering health care costs by reducing the burdens of an antiquated legal system will make Kentucky a place that physicians want to practice medicine. Kentuckians won’t have to wait weeks or months to be treated.

Let’s get Kentucky out of the legal “dark ages” and make our state a place where these things happen. That sounds like progress!

Robert Couch, MD, is a board certified emergency physician in Louisville. He is Chairman of the Greater Louisville Medical Society and serves as board member for both the Kentucky Medical Association and The Healing Place.

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