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New study calls the benefits of Texas medical malpractice reform into question

Texas tort reform is again in the news, thanks in part to the recent Ebola crisis.

Legal news analysts have been assessing the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the deceased Dallas Ebola patient. Texas Presbyterian Hospital has admitted that Duncan should have been tested for Ebola upon his first visit to the emergency room, but ER staff mistakenly turned him away. However, most legal analysts agree that his family will not be able to sue the hospital for their mistake.

In 2003, the state of Texas instituted medical malpractice reforms that included tougher standards for suing ER doctors. Those harmed by the actions of ER physicians in Texas have to prove that the doctors knowingly caused harm. It’s a high standard, and one unlike the standards for any other type of medical malpractice in Texas.

At the time, proponents of the reform touted lower healthcare costs for all as a principal benefit of reform. But a major study from the New England Journal of Medicine, which looked specifically at the effects of medical malpractice reform on emergency room care in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, said that after 10 years, those cost benefits were not realized.

According to the study, medical malpractice reform has not reduced the cost of ER care, nor has it lessened the use of unnecessary tests. In trying to explain why medical malpractice reform has had little or no effect on medical care, the authors of the study suggest that ER physicians may not be as influenced in their actions by the fear of lawsuits as they claim to be.

The study did reveal that the most likely beneficiary of tort reform is insurance companies. While healthcare costs for patients have not dropped as promised, insurance companies are keeping more money in their pockets, with fewer legal medical malpractice actions and fewer payouts to injured and ill patients who have suffered harm in the ER.

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