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Burr aims to solve health care ‘crisis’

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The man who filled John Edwards' Senate seat stands in stark contrast to the personal injury attorney and failed vice-presidential candidate.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr favors reforms in the legal system to rein in medical malpractice lawsuits, which he blames for the inflation in medical costs.

"The health care crisis, I believe, is the number one issue," Mr. Burr said in an interview with The Washington Times.

Mr. Edwards made millions suing doctors and hospitals. He blamed skyrocketing health care costs on insurance companies and dismissed all of the aggressive Republican plans for tort reform stalled in Congress.

Mr. Burr said the rising health care costs have driven many doctors out of business -- especially in rural areas -- leaving many North Carolinians without health care.

"If you go into labor, you're going to go to the doctor even if you have to drive 60 miles," he said. "But if you're pregnant and need prenatal care, you might not drive that far."

Mr. Burr also remains open-minded about dealing with the malpractice insurance premiums doctors pay.

"If we can't come up with legislation to moderate that, then the federal government could create an independent fund to deal with that," he said. "We do it with flood insurance."

Mr. Burr's campaign against second-time Democratic Senate nominee Erskine Bowles -- who once served as chief of staff to President Clinton -- was about far more than just tort reform.

"Their discourse in the campaign really focused on jobs, the Iraq war and Social Security reform," said Tim Vercellotti, polling director for Elon University in North Carolina. "And really, there weren't that many differences between the two on those issues."

Mainly, the two fought over whose "fair trade" stance was more solid, who deserved more credit for the federal tobacco buyout and who had closer ties to Mr. Clinton.

"I'm sure there were some areas of the state where people saw those ads [about Mr. Bowles' service under Mr. Clinton] and said, 'Well, that's all I need to know,'" Mr. Vercellotti said.

Like several new Senate Republicans, Mr. Burr is one of the 1994 House revolutionaries and hopes to bring a little of that spark to the slow and meandering Senate.

"There's frustration by many voters that Washington talks a lot but does very little," he said.

He was asked about fixing Social Security, which is expected to become insolvent in as few as 15 years. Should the government cut benefits, raise taxes or raise the retirement age? He said he wants to find "a fourth option."

"There's potential that you might finance it with long-term bonds," he said, adding that such a fix is "remote." In any event, he supports President Bush's plan to privatize a small portion of the program and said he doesn't "rule anything out."

Mr. Burr also said his top priority is not trimming the federal government.

"I'm less concerned about where we find areas to eliminate, and I'm more focused on finding things we know are broken," he said. "Our challenge is not necessarily to find out what to eliminate next year, but it's how to slow the growth."

Mr. Burr recalled that in 1994, Republicans eliminated the deficits "not because of cuts, but because of the growth of the economy."

As for Mr. Edwards, who bowed out of a re-election race for a quest for the vice presidency, Mr. Burr had mixed remarks.

"He is a talented individual, probably who didn't use those talents totally on North Carolina's behalf in the Senate," Mr. Burr said. "He had other aspirations."

Asked if he was relieved that Mr. Edwards bowed out of the Senate race, Mr. Burr said he would have "actually preferred" to run against the sitting senator.

"It's always easier to run against someone with an established record," he said.

When Mr. Burr was sworn in earlier this month, he became the seventh senator in as many terms to occupy that seat, which has become known for its one-term curse.

"It's my challenge to make sure I reverse the trend," he said.

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