Doctors Who Work for the Government Already Have Medical Malpractice Reform

Politicians serious about reducing health care costs by reducing malpractice litigation might consider the relatively simple reform of giving private physicians the same liability protection that governments already extend to the physicians who work for them. After all, if the point of malpractice litigation is to protect patients and government malpractice protections are good enough for patients receiving government health care, then they ought to be good enough for patients receiving private health care.

In Colorado, which has laws similar to many other states, statute limits noneconomic damages to $300,000 for private physicians. There are no limits on the economic damages that may be assessed.

Physicians who work for the University of Colorado Hospital or the Denver Health and Hospitals Authority, which provides various health services to Denver, have a much better deal. They fall under the Colorado Government Immunity Act, which covers any physician or nurse or other provider who works for a government hospital or provides health care for any county, city and county, municipality, school district, special improvement district or any other political subdivision. Liability limits under the Act are $150,000 per individual and $600,000 per occurrence in which multiple individuals may be injured.

Employees of the Veteran’s Administration and the federally qualified community health centers also enjoy special protection. So do volunteers at free clinics. Under the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act, government physicians get special courts, special protections, and can’t be sued directly. According to the Government Accountability Office, the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act “largely immunizes federal government employees from tort liability, including medical malpractice.” Health and Human Services estimated that replacing privately purchased comprehensive malpractice insurance with the Federal Tort Claims Act saved the 915 eligible federally qualified community health centers $204 million in 2008 alone.

According to the GAO, the Federal Tort Claims Act has a statute of limitations of 2 years and requires that the person making the claim sue the United States, not an individual physician. After a claim is filed, the applicable department (say the Veterans Administration or Health and Human Services) may settle the claim. It may also dismiss it if it feels it is without merit. People who have their claims denied may then file suit, but only in federal district court. The case is heard without a jury, and the Department of Justice litigates the case. No punitive damages may be awarded, and payments to patients are paid out of congressionally appropriated funds.

If such procedures adequately protect patients treated by government, then government has an easy solution to the malpractice problem: extend the same protections to private physicians.

Comments (7)

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  1. Ken says:

    This is really interesting. I’ve never heard this before.

  2. Bart Ingles says:

    Interesting. It sort of guts the argument against tort reform, doesn’t it?

  3. Larry C. says:

    Here’s the right slogan for tort reform: treat all doctors the way the government treats its doctors.

  4. Bart says:

    Why am I not surprised to find out that the government has opted out of the malpractice system?

  5. Janice Michaud says:

    The problem is that either way the cost falls on individual Americans.
    Whether as taxpayers or as consumers. The cost of these windfall litigations as well as the consequences to our providers should be transparent and accountability should prevail.
    The judicial branch should be held accountable.
    Government doctors having immunity provides a sanctuary at the expense of taxpayers and gives government an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
    Since the risk stops at individuals, government needs to be held accountable to protect all Americans whether their role be as taxpayor, consumer or litigant.
    I disagree John, that government should provide this for all doctors, that would ensure inflated coss, and an eternal problem that never meets full scrutiny.

  6. Bob Hamilton says:

    I practiced general and vascular surgery in Madison County, Illinois (until recently considered by many to be the worst judicial hellhole in the U.S.)for 30 years. If we can’t get constitutionally sustainable limits on non-economic awards, we should overhaul administraion of these cases. As difficult as management of major illness an high risk treatment is under present conditions, we have to protect the rights of those who have been injured by negligence. It is equally important to protect those who give care to these patients. A qualified medical panel of same-specialty physicians should identify cases that have no merit. Further judicial and administrative steps should be evaluated by pilot projects. A $10 million judgement for a $1 million injury is ridicilous. At present, controlling malpractice litigation abuse has only ben accomplished by laws that cap non-economic awards.

  7. Ron says:

    While some awards seem outrageous, many of them are inflated by the need to account for subsequent healthcare needs (and the rising rates of such care) over the span of the rest of the patient’s life. It is one thing to eliminate frivolous lawsuits, but frivolity isn’t, or shouldn’t be, determined by the amount awarded. Likewise punative awards especially against individuals or organizations who display a pattern of negligent or purposeful disregard for a patient’s care, serve an invaluable and necessary service that can only be otherwise addressed through criminal prosecution and a refocussing of prosecutors at every level throughout the US. Personally, I don’t see that happening. Perhaps a system where punitive damages received by the patient were limited, but where Judges and juries were allowed to award whatever amount was deemed appropriate to deter future repeats of the behavior, and the difference is collected and distributed to indigent care programs around the state/nation.