The Department of Health has proposed to put a cap on fees lawyers can charge in NHS medical indemnity claims, but defence unions have said this will not necessarily lead to lower indemnity fees for GPs.
The Government said it hoped the proposals, which would include fixing legal costs for claims up to £100,000, would save the NHS up to £80m a year.
The DH will consult on proposals in the autumn, prompted by the high cost of legal fees charged to the NHS in recent years.
But defence unions said that while the change was helpful, the main costs came from high value claims that can be up to millions of pounds.
NHS Litigation Authority’s total bill from claimaint lawyers for 2013/14 stood at £259m, including one case where a lawyer charged £175,000 for a case where the patient ended up getting paid only £11,800 in damages, the DH said.
Currently, there is no limit on legal fees even if the compensation claim is small, which the DH said means lawyers can claim ‘extortionate’ fees for low-cost cases.
It comes as spiralling costs of indemnity cover are causing GPs much concern and leading to difficulties for out-of-hours providers struggling to fill shifts.
The MDU said the proposals would not likely change indemnity fees.
An MDU spokesperson said: ‘We do not expect it will mean any change for indemnity fees. The burden of money lies in the high value claims which are continuing to rise dramatically. For example, we have recently paid £7.45m in a GP case and while defendants are expected to pay compensation to fund independent sector health and social care, indemnity costs will continue to rise in an unsustainable manner.’
However, the MDDUS said the proposals were ‘helpful’.
MDDUS chief executive Chris Kenny said: ‘Although payments in respect of compensation for patients account for the majority of MDDUS’ claims-related expenditure overall, the costs that we face from claimant solicitors are very substantial. So, while we can’t predict the precise impact at this stage, early targeted action from government can only be helpful in reducing the cost pressures on the profession.’
Health minister Ben Gummer said: ‘Safe, compassionate care is my upmost priority and to achieve this, the NHS must make sure every penny counts. Unscrupulously, some lawyers have used patient claims to load grossly excessive costs onto the NHS and charge far more than the patient receives in compensation.
‘These financial controls will ensure money is pumped back into patient care.’