AUSTIN - A new study issued this month by a Texas public policy think tank states that medical malpractice reform has increased medical access across the state.
Ryan Brannan, a policy analyst for the Center for Economic Freedom, part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, compiled the research for the study, The Texas Model: Improving Health Care through Tort Reform.
"Prior to 2003, the State of Texas was in a medical crisis," Brannan said in a Sept. 15 press release. "Doctors were being sued at record pace and for record sums as there was no cap on non-economic damage awards. This caused malpractice rates to rise significantly. One out of four doctors had a claim filed against them each year."
According to the study, doctors left Texas in droves prior to reform of the legal system passed by the state legislature in 2003. After the system was reformed doctors returned to the state in such great numbers that Texas now has more physicians per capita than ever before – even formerly underserved areas have access to physicians, the study claims.
But Brannan noted that despite the fact that 85 percent of those malpractice claims did not go to trial, they still cost an average of $50,000 to defend. Those that did go to trial cost about $1.4 million.
Many doctors chose not to practice in Texas – a phenomenon that has occurred in other states including Pennsylvania, the study says.
By 1998, there were 2,866 newly-licensed physicians in the state. However, in four years this number dropped to 2,110 despite population increases in Texas.
By 2003, Texas ranked 49th out of the 50 states in doctor-per-citizen ratio. The study reports that 150 of 254 counties did not have an obstetrician and 120 did not have a pediatrician.
The two years prior to malpractice reform saw nearly all of the high-risk specialists limiting their practice. This left only 5,674 of the 10,675 licensed high-risk specialists actually providing a full range of services to their patients.
The Texas Legislature passed a comprehensive package of medical liability reforms in June 2003 to fix the medical care crisis in the state.
According to the study the reforms were successful: 24,583 new physicians have been licensed in Texas since 2003.
The Texas Medical Board has received 83 percent more applications and licensed 60 percent more doctors in the past four years than in the four years preceding reform.
According to the study, Texas is also seeing doctors return to previously underserved areas.
"The number of obstetricians practicing in rural Texas has grown by 27 percent," the study claims. "Twenty-two rural Texas counties have added at least one obstetrician since 2003, including ten counties that previously had none. Post-reform, Texas has licensed 212 orthopedic surgeons, representing a 15 percent increase in the number of Texas orthopedists in the past six years."
A Texas Medical Association survey credits malpractice reform as the reason. According the survey, nearly 95 percent of physicians who were in residency or practicing medicine in another state in September 2003 said the "Texas liability climate was 'very important' or of 'moderate importance' in their decision to practice in Texas."
Another 80 percent rated the state's malpractice environment superior to the state in which they previously practiced, the TMB survey states.
According to Brannan, the reasons are obvious.
"Tort reform saved Texas from a medical crisis," he said.
A pdf version of the full report, The Texas Model: Improving Health Care Through Tort Reform, is available on the Texas Public Policy website: www.texaspolicy.com/publications.