Bush seeks medical malpractice reform

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United Press International

WASHINGTON, D.C.: President George W. Bush Thursday urged the U.S. Congress to approve his proposal to cap medical malpractice awards in his effort to address a national crisis that has seen physicians opting out of providing medical care in high-risk specialties or unable to obtain insurance coverage.

“There are too many lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals without merit. And one thing the American people must understand is even though the lawsuits are junk lawsuits, and they have no basis, they’re still expensive,” Bush said to cheers and applause.

Bush made his comments at a time when increasing numbers of doctors across the country have been experiencing difficulty in securing affordable malpractice insurance, particularly in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics. Many have either left their practices or limited what services they offer. The president promised reforms of the system that he said allows nearly unlimited damage awards.

Bush traveled to Pennsylvania where he delivered his speech before doctors and surgeons at the University of Scranton. There he detailed his proposal for alleviating what the medical community has come to call a crisis. Prior to his remarks he participated in a roundtable discussion on medical liability with physicians at Mercy Hospital.

The president’s proposal seeks capping non-economic damages at $250,000, which include awards for pain and suffering. It would allow payments of judgments to be paid out over time rather than in a single lump sum and ensures that old cases cannot be brought years after an event, the White House said.

“Twenty percent of hospitals nationwide have had to cut down on certain services, on delivering babies, on neurosurgery or cardiovascular surgery or orthopedic surgery. That’s a fact. So it’s a problem not only for Pennsylvania, it’s a problem for our country,” Bush said.

The proposal would also reduce the amount doctors must pay if a plaintiff has received insurance payments to compensate for their losses, and calls for defendants to pay judgments in proportion to their fault.

Bush called on Congress to approve his proposed legislation. The White House said states without reasonable limits on damages have experienced the largest hikes in medical malpractice insurance premiums, some ranging from 36 percent to 113 percent in 2002.

In what was once a quiet tug-of-war between doctors and insurance companies became quite public as West Virginia physicians took more demonstrative tack in voicing their displeasure.

Physicians in the coal-mining state went on strike Jan. 1 protesting malpractice costs. It caused four hospitals to scramble to cut worker hours and transfer patients. That state is now on its way to passing its own medical malpractice reforms. On Monday the state’s House Judiciary Committee passed a medical malpractice reform bill backed by doctors and insurance companies that capped damages at $250,000, and $500,000 for damages arising from trauma care.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise had proposed a reform plan that would have used $20 million in tobacco settlement money for a relief fund. It would have modified the qualifications for expert testimony; limited liability for non-economic loss, modified joint and several liability, limited damages paid by a collateral source and limited liability for trauma care.

Groups representing trial lawyers and consumers were outraged, saying Bush’s action would severely limit the rights of injured patients. They blame insurers for the current crisis.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights maintained that insurance reforms passed by California voters dramatically lowered doctors’ malpractice premiums and led to more stable rates.

“Strong insurance regulation, not arbitrary caps on injured patients’ recovery, is the only way to bring medical malpractice insurance rates down,” said Douglas Heller, senior consumer advocate for FTCR. “Blaming victims of malpractice simply leads to more victimization by doctors, hospitals, and HMOs, while regulating insurance companies would actually lower doctors’ premiums.

Rodger S. Lawson, president of the Alliance of American Insurers praised the president’s proposal saying that one way to moderate health care costs was to deal with the issue of malpractice lawsuits. He said Bush’s plan was fashioned after California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act and has prevented the problems the rest of the country is experiencing.

“No one is suggesting that economic loss should not be covered,” Lawson said. Insurers are opposed to excessively high non-economic awards.

The Alliance of American Insurers represents 340 property and casualty insurers from around the country.

Lawson pointed to the expense of defending cases that turnout to have no merit. He said insurers spend an average of $23,000 just to open a case and prepare for court.

In Chicago, Donald J. Palmisano, president-elect of the American Medical Association, said Bush’s visit to Pennsylvania underscored the need to end “jackpot justice.”

“Pennsylvania already has lost more than 600 physicians and two maternity wards, and trauma care in Scranton and throughout the state is in jeopardy,” said Palmisano. “While lawmakers debate the merits of medical liability reform, their delays are putting patient care at serious risk.”

Palmisano also pointed to California’s MICRA law as the model law for Pennsylvania and the nation because it protects patients’ access to the courts while reigning in excessive jury awards and lawsuits without merit.

MICRA, which has been in place since 1975, is the reason physicians’ insurance premiums in California have risen by 167 percent since 1975 while physicians in the rest of the country have seen their premiums increase by 505 percent, said the AMA, a trade association for doctors.

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