Grants to aid projects on improving patient safety, curbing malpractice suits

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; 4:04 PM

The Obama administration has awarded $23.2 million in grants to local government agencies and medical providers in 16 states for projects intended to improve patient safety and curb medical malpractice suits, officials announced Friday.

Seven of the grants are for three-year demonstration projects that will test innovations such as making obstetrics procedures more uniform and offering patients and their families immediate compensation for medical errors rather than requiring them to pursue costly and often lengthy lawsuits. Similarly, a project in New York will evaluate a voluntary judge-directed negotiation program under the auspices of the state court.

The remaining 13 grants are for one-year "planning" initiatives such as an Oregon project to develop "safe harbor" legislation that limits the liabilities of physicians who can prove they followed state-endorsed, evidence-based guidelines for care.

The prevalence of medical malpractice suits has long been the bane of physicians and other providers, who complain of staggering malpractice insurance costs. There is also concern that fear of lawsuits discourages hospitals from sharing information about mistakes that could help prevent them in the future and prompts doctors to practice "defensive" medicine in which they subject patients to every possible test regardless of expense or need to shield themselves from claims of negligence.

States and providers have tried a variety of measures to address the problem, including capping the amount of damages that patients can be awarded.

However, there has been very little study of the impact of such efforts, said Rima Cohen, counselor for health policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We don't know with the reforms already implemented in the states . . . are they reducing malpractice premiums and the number of lawsuits? Are they improving quality and reducing preventable errors?" she said at a news conference. "So that was the focus of [these grants] . . . to see if we can get a better handle on what actually works."

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