- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

MADISON, Miss. President Bush yesterday decried the effects of "junk and frivolous lawsuits" on Americans, saying excessive litigation by unscrupulous trial lawyers was decimating the health care industry.

Speaking in a state where lawyers have sought huge punitive damage awards, Mr. Bush said Mississippi is expected to lose 10 percent of its doctors this year because of rising malpractice liability insurance rates.

"Junk and frivolous lawsuits can ruin an honest business. In this state, the lawsuit industry is devastating the practice of medicine," Mr. Bush said in a speech at Madison Central High School.

"Too many frivolous lawsuits in this state are being filed against doctors. That's a fact. And too many jury awards are out of control," he said.

Mississippi has seen a dramatic rise in lawsuit awards in the last seven years. Before 1995, no verdicts topped $9 million. Since then, 19 have exceeded that amount with five more than $100 million, according to circuit court records.

Knowing those figures, lawyers have been flocking to Mississippi. Jefferson County, where the state capital Jackson is located, saw an increase in the number of lawsuits from fewer than 10,000 in 1999 to more than 27,000 the next year.

"Most of the cities with populations under 20,000 in Mississippi no longer have doctors to deliver babies," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Medical liability insurance rates for Mississippi doctors who deliver babies have risen from 20 percent to 400 percent the past year, and many doctors are unable to obtain coverage because 17 insurance companies have stopped offering medical malpractice insurance, he said.

Mr. Bush has targeted trial lawyers "fishing for lawsuits" as a prime cause of the increased cost of medical malpractice insurance. Last month, the president said frivolous lawsuits drive up the cost of government health programs by more than $25 billion every year.

Yesterday, he drew a standing ovation when he called for action to solve the problem.

"We need to do something about it. This state needs to do something about it, and so does Washington, D.C.," he shouted.

Mr. Bush called on the Senate to pass his proposal already approved by the House to overhaul the system and place limits on the amounts lawyers can win.

The legislation allows injured patients to receive unlimited damage awards for the loss of past and future earnings but limits the types of cases in which punitive damages may be paid and caps such awards at up to two times the economic damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

The president's plan is aimed at correcting a wide disparity among states concerning medical malpractice insurance. Mr. Bush says nationwide limits on malpractice awards should be imposed because states have failed to adopt "reasonable" liability caps.

The American Medical Association and the insurance industry support the bill. Trial lawyers and consumer groups oppose the caps, saying they would inhibit patients' ability to hold doctors accountable. Most congressional Democrats oppose caps while most Republicans support them.

The White House said the president's plan could save the federal government $30 billion annually in health costs and could reduce such costs for all Americans by $60 billion or more.

Mr. Bush also touted legislation he signed into law last month to crack down on corporate criminals. The headquarters of WorldCom, the long-distance telephone and data services company that filed for bankruptcy after an accounting scandal recently, was in nearby Clinton, Miss.

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