The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Phone: (202) 588-1000

HHS Report Is a Wake-Up Call to Fix National Patient Safety Crisis

Statement of David Arkush, Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division


More than a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) alerted the
nation to a crisis of medical errors in hospitals. Today, we learn that
nothing has changed and that patients are suffering needless injuries
and deaths from preventable medical mistakes. The Inspector General's
office of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has
reconfirmed what has been reported repeatedly over the years: that the
country is in a patient safety crisis, and that medical professionals,
lawmakers and regulators must do significantly more to avert it.

The IOM's 1999 landmark report, "To Err is Human," dropped the first
bombshell, reporting that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die in
hospitals each year from medical mistakes, costing an estimated $17
billion to $29 billion annually. HHS' new finding that medical mistakes
kill 15,000 Medicare patients a month equates to 180,000 Medicare deaths
per year - more than the IOM's estimate, which attempted to cover all
patients in the United States. That means that the annual death toll in
this country caused by mistakes in hospitals is well over 250,000 deaths
a year! But perhaps the most startling finding by HHS is that a
significant number of patients suffered injuries or died needlessly, as
44 percent of the medical errors were preventable.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the patient safety emergency
facing us as the lives and national health care costs rack up on a daily
basis. Given that 1.6 million Medicare patients suffer injuries every
year from medical mistakes with an annual taxpayer price tag of at least
$4.4 billion, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and
Reform should consider ways to reduce the federal budget deficit by
preventing medical errors.

The president's deficit commission should focus on patient safety
rather than the dangerous "tort reform" proposals offered last week by
its co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Making health care safer
would be a far more effective and just means of saving money than
curtailing the rights of malpractice victims or insulating doctors from
accountability for wrongdoing. Shielding doctors from liability for
their errors only exacerbates the patient safety crisis and promotes
higher health care costs. Malpractice payments are at the lowest they
have ever been since they were first recorded in 1990, which means that
despite the epidemic of medical errors, fewer victims are receiving
compensation for their injuries and fewer medical providers are being
held accountable for the harm they cause. In fact, there are nearly 10
times as many injuries caused by medical negligence as there are
malpractice claims.

The only workable solution to preventing unnecessary deaths and
injuries is to combine much more patient-protective hospital protocols
with much better scrutiny by hospitals of physicians and other health
care providers, and to appropriately discipline those whose performance
results in preventable patient harm.

Congress and the federal agencies should treat the HHS report as a
wake-up call. Instead of flirting with ways to eliminate patients' legal
rights, they must save costs and lives by taking affirmative steps to
help patients.

Note: For Public Citizen's 2009 report on how to save 85,000 lives and $35 billion in health care delivery, go to

Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.

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