Medical Malpractice Insurance:
Multiple Factors Have Contributed to Premium Rate Increases
GAO-04-128T: Published: Oct 1, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 1, 2003.
This testimony focuses on the factors that have contributed to the recent increases in insurance premium rates and the differences in rates among states that have passed varying levels of tort reform laws. Our findings are based on two reports we recently issued addressing various aspects of the recent increases in medical malpractice insurance rates. Recognizing that the medical malpractice market varies considerably across states, as part of these reviews we judgmentally selected a number of states and conducted more in-depth reviews in each of those states. Both our analyses and our conclusions are based in part on data and information we received from the states we visited and in part on analyses of national data from various sources.
In summary, multiple factors have contributed to the recent increases in medical malpractice premium rates in the states we analyzed. First, since 1998, insurers' losses on medical malpractice claims have increased rapidly in some states. We found that the increased losses appeared to be the greatest contributor to increased premium rates, but a lack of comprehensive data at the national and state levels on insurers' medical malpractice claims and the associated losses prevented us from fully analyzing the composition and causes of those losses. For example, data that would have allowed us to analyze claim severity at the insurer level on a state-by-state basis or to determine how losses were broken down between economic and noneconomic damages were unavailable. Second, from 1998 through 2001, medical malpractice insurers experienced decreases in their investment income as interest rates fell on the bonds that generally make up around 80 percent of these insurers' investment portfolios. While almost no medical malpractice insurers experienced net losses on their investment portfolios over this period, a decrease in investment income meant that income from insurance premiums had to cover a larger share of costs. Third, during the 1990s, insurers competed vigorously for medical malpractice business, and several factors, including high investment returns, permitted them to offer prices that, in hindsight, did not completely cover the ultimate losses some insurers experienced on that business. As a result, some companies became insolvent or voluntarily left the market, reducing the downward competitive pressure on premium rates that had existed through the 1990s. Fourth, beginning in 2001, reinsurance rates for medical malpractice insurers also increased more rapidly than they had in the past, raising insurers' overall costs. In combination, all of these factors have contributed to the movement of the medical malpractice insurance market through hard and soft phases--similar to the cycles experienced by the property-casualty insurance market as a whole--and premium rates have fluctuated with each phase. Cycles in the medical malpractice market tend to be more extreme than in other insurance markets because of the longer period of time required to resolve medical malpractice claims, and factors such as changes in investment income and reduced competition can exacerbate the fluctuations. In an attempt to constrain increases in medical malpractice premium rates, states have adopted various tort reform measures. Of particular focus recently have been tort reform measures that include placing caps on monetary awards for noneconomic damages--such as pain and suffering--that may be paid to plaintiffs in a malpractice lawsuit. Available data, while somewhat limited in scope, indicate that rates of premium growth have been slower on average in states that have enacted tort reforms with noneconomic damage caps than in states with more limited reforms. Premium rates reported for three specialties--general surgery, internal medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology--were relatively stable on average in most states from 1996 through the late 1990s and then began to rise, but more slowly, in states with certain noneconomic damage caps. For example, from 2001 through 2002 average premium rates rose approximately 10 percent in the four states with noneconomic damage caps of $250,000 but approximately 29 percent in states with more limited tort reforms. As we have discussed, premium rate increases are influenced by multiple factors, and our analyses did not allow us to determine the extent to which the differences premium rate increases at the state level could be attributed to tort reform laws or to other factors.