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Ebola Brings Patient Safety to the Forefront: The Real Story Behind Tort Reform

Jennifer A. Barry

Recently, the news has been full of stories about failures to contain the Ebola virus at Texas Health Presbyterian’s emergency room. The real story, though, is not simply the story of Thomas Eric Duncan, but rather a story of patient safety in general, and what happens when we allow hospitals and medical providers to avoid responsibility for their actions.

More than a decade ago, Texas enacted one of the toughest tort reform packages in the country. It granted immunity to most individual health care workers, statutorily redefined what types of medical errors would qualify as negligence, and placed caps on non-economic damages for claims such as pain and suffering. The justification for needing to institute such widespread changes to the judicial system, which had been in effect for more than one hundred fifty years, was the need to reduce allegedly “out of control” health expenditures that were being fueled by “defensive medicine.”

What have we learned in the ten years since Texas tort reform? First, and most importantly for health care policy, we have learned that the story of Thomas Duncan is not an aberration: Texas is ranked last in terms of quality of care according to the federal government. Second, the cost of health care in Texas has gone up faster than the national average. Third, the number of physicians per 100,000 patients in Texas has increased at a rate below the national mean.

The only thing Texas tort reform has accomplished is to limit an injured family’s ability to have their day in court, and to increase doctors’ and insurance companies’ profit margins. One family learned this the hard way. Read the tragic story of the DiLeo family and learn more about the realities of “Texas Justice.” See Is It Time to Reform Tort Reform?.