- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

President Bush said yesterday that "grossly excessive jury awards" and "lawyers who are fishing for lawsuits" have caused doctors to practice defensive medicine, increasing the cost of medical-malpractice insurance and costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year.

"It is estimated that frivolous lawsuits drive up the cost of government health programs by over $25 billion every year. It's a national problem that requires a national solution," he told a group of medical professionals during a visit to a hospital and university in High Point, N.C.

Mr. Bush urged Congress to pass a $250,000 cap on damage awards for medical-malpractice lawsuits, reduce lawyers' fees and curtail patients' ability to file suit over old cases.

"The unpredictability of our liability system means that even frivolous cases people call them junk lawsuits carry the risk of enormous burdens," he said.

"The fear of even baseless lawsuits causes good doctors to order excessive tests and procedures and treatments. It's called defensive medicine. If you think you're going to get sued, you do everything you possibly can to prevent the trial lawyer from coming after you. Unfortunately, that costs patients a lot of money."

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.

Before his speech, Mr. Bush met with Dr. Shelby Wilbourn, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Las Vegas whose insurance premium went from $33,000 to $108,000, even though he has never been sued.

The doctor plans to move his practice next month to Maine, where "the costs of doing business are about a quarter of what they were in Nevada," Mr. Bush said.

The president also met with Lauri Peel of Raleigh, N.C., whose doctor has just decided to move to Virginia because of the high liability premiums in North Carolina.

"He said it's no longer fun to practice medicine here. Not just here, it's no longer fun to practice medicine when there's a constant threat of a lawsuit hanging over your head," Mr. Bush said, drawing loud applause from the medical crowd.

Under the bill the president backs, injured patients could still receive unlimited damage awards for the loss of past and future earnings. But the legislation would limit the cases in which punitive damages may be paid and cap 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.

"Doctors alone had to pay over $6 billion in medical liability premiums last year, and premiums this year in many states have increased by more than 20 percent on average and more than 75 percent for specialties in some states," the White House said in a statement.

Lawyers are the root of the problem, especially those who employ a "lottery" strategy filing numerous lawsuits regardless of merit, it said. "If exaggerated awards are possible, even if very unlikely, a personal injury lawyer only needs to win one out of hundreds of cases to make it all worthwhile from the standpoint of the lawyer."

Mr. Bush believes a nationwide malpractice award cap should be imposed on all states because their failure to adopt "reasonable" liability caps on their own is damaging the nation's health care system, said White House health care adviser Mark McClellan.

While 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 the caps, while most Republicans support them.

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