While the AMA adds Wyoming to its list of states in medical malpractice "crisis," a new General Accounting Office report suggests the term "crisis" is an overstatement.
Surveying five of the 19 states that the AMA deems in crisis, the government study finds only some of them suffer from malpractice-related "reduced access to hospital-based services affecting emergency surgery and newborn deliveries."
The report never uses the term "crisis." It notes the access problems encountered in Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Florida were "in scattered, often rural, areas," where other causes, such as the unwillingness of young physicians to locate there, reduced access.
An AMA statement about the GAO report glosses over those findings, saying the GAO "confirms that America's medical liability crisis is causing access to health care problems in high-risk medical specialties." It does not mention that the GAO questions data the AMA used to make its crisis determinations.
The agency says an AMA survey on physicians cutting back services had a response rate of only 10% and did not specify cutbacks in specific services. And while the Florida Medical Association reported neurosurgeons in two counties had stopped practicing, the GAO says it found at least five such specialists at work in each county.
Coming from the chief investigative arm of Congress, the report, issued in late August, is more bad news for flagging legislation in Congress to cap noneconomic damages.
The GAO offers itself as an unbiased resource in a divisive debate over the extent of the malpractice problem. Its July report on the alarming rise in malpractice premiums, for example, says litigation seems to be the main cause rather than insurers' poor business decisions, as trial attorneys contend.
Critics of the study say the agency may have jumped to conclusions. For example, the GAO says Pennsylvania actually saw a slight increase in the number of physicians per capita in the past six years. Peter Achor, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Medical Society, says the agency based its numbers on licensed physicians who may actually practice in other states. In fact, doctors who flee the state often keep their Pennsylvania license, he says.
"What the GAO ends up doing is refuting anecdotal data with anecdotal data," Achor says.