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Bush outlines medical liability reform

Proposal would limit jury awards in malpractice lawsuit

President Bush decries
President Bush decries "excessive jury awards" as he calls for limits on medical malpractice reform.

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• Allow injured patients quicker, unlimited compensation for their economic losses, including provisions for unpaid services like care for children or parents

• Cap non-economic damages at $250,000

• Cap punitive damages at two times economic damages or $250,000, whichever is greater

• Provide for payments of judgments over time rather than in a single lump sum

• Establish limits on how long cases can be brought after an event

• Notify juries if a plaintiff has other sources of reimbursement for an injury


SCRANTON, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- President Bush Thursday renewed his call for federal legislation to limit the amount of money juries can award victims of medical malpractice -- a proposal that sets him on a collision course with trial lawyers and many Democrats who oppose such limits.

"For the sake of affordable and accessible health care in America, we must have a limit on what they call non-economic damages -- I propose a cap of $250,000," Bush told an enthusiastic audience made up of health care workers, Republican supporters and students at the University of Scranton. The president was referring to a limit on pain-and-suffering awards.

Bush predicted that, without such changes, "excessive jury awards will continue to drive up insurance costs, will put good doctors out of business, will run them out of your community and will hurt communities like Scranton, Pennsylvania. That's a fact."

In addition, Bush urged Congress to pass caps on punitive damages.

Bush backed similar legislation that was approved in the House last year, but not in the then-Democratic controlled Senate.

The issue could have some resonance this year because of the 2004 presidential race. For example, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- one of the Democratic contenders -- is a former trial lawyer.

Bush also called for limits on who can be sued. "A lot of times, these lawyers will sue everybody in sight in order to try to get something," he said. "In cases where more than one person is responsible for a patient's injuries, we need to assign blame fairly."

He added that "there are too many lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals without merit," and even "junk" lawsuits can be expensive. "It costs money to fight off a junk lawsuit, and oftentimes, in order to avoid litigation and oftentimes to cut their costs, docs, and therefore the companies that ensure them, just settle," the president said.

As a result, he said, insurance rates are "going out of sight."

Fear of lawsuits has also boosted the cost of health care by leading doctors to practice "defensive medicine," ordering unneeded tests and procedures, Bush said, adding that such practices raise the federal government's health care costs by at least $28 billion a year.

California's model

Bush urged lawmakers to follow the example of California, which capped damages from malpractice lawsuits more than 25 years ago, "and the law has worked," he said.

But Edwards slammed Bush's motives in a news release.

"President Bush is once again standing with his insider friends in the insurance industry and standing against seriously injured children and families," said Edwards, who made his fortune as a trial lawyer.

"The truth is the insurance industry has done poorly in the market and is simply passing those costs on to doctors and patients," he said. Edwards proposed instead that "frivolous" lawsuits be stopped and "the handful of doctors" responsible for most lawsuits be disciplined.

"Senator Edwards is reporting the misinformation of the trial lawyers," responded Lawrence Smarr, president of the PIAA, which insures more than 60 percent of the nation's doctors. "Medical malpractice insurers are 80 percent invested in bonds, and only about 11.5 percent invested in common stocks. ... The only people that are questioning the insurance industry are the trial lawyers. They, ironically, are the ones who stand to lose the most if tort reform is enacted."

Trial lawyers respond

The American Trial Lawyers Association predicted the legislation Bush wants would not cause premiums to drop.

"Until Congress reforms the insurance laws, doctors' livelihoods and patients' lives will continue to be threatened by corporate interests that put profits over people," said Mary E. Alexander, president of the group.

"It appears that President Bush trusts politicians in Washington -- not American juries -- to decide what is fair compensation for a young woman who never can bear children, a retiree who loses his eyesight, or a family whose toddler dies due to preventable medical malpractice."

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