- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

SCRANTON, Pa. President Bush yesterday declared the medical-liability system "broken" and urged the Senate to pass a nationwide limit on jury awards to reduce the skyrocketing cost of health care.
"The problem of those unnecessary costs isn't in the waiting room, or the operating room they're in the courtroom," Mr. Bush said in a speech at the University of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania.
"We need reform all across America and we need a law coming out of the United States Congress," he said.
With the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress, Mr. Bush is setting an agenda heavy on health care issues. With Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, a surgeon by profession, as Senate majority leader, the president expects to pass a prescription-drug package, reforms to federal health care programs and a patients' "bill of rights."
Yesterday, Mr. Bush resuscitated his plan to revamp medical-malpractice laws, which he pushed daily while on the campaign trail in 2002, drawing enthusiastic applause from Republicans at each stop.
Under his proposal, damages for actual financial losses such as wages and medical expenses would not be capped. But it would limit noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering to $250,000, and punitive damages to twice actual losses, up to a cap of $250,000. Patients' ability to file lawsuits over old cases would also be restricted and lawyers' fees curtailed.
"For the sake of affordable and sensible health care in America, we must have a limit on what they call noneconomic damages and punitive damages," Mr. Bush said.
The president said "frivolous junk lawsuits" are driving up health care costs even when the cases never see the inside of a courtroom.
"It costs money to fight off a junk lawsuit. So even though there's no merit, in order just to get rid of the thing, they say, 'OK, let's just pay you,'" he said.
Although a strong states' rights advocate, Mr. Bush said the medical-liability system is different. "It is a national problem that needs a national solution," he said. "The direct cost of malpractice insurance and the indirect cost from defensive medicine raise the federal government's health care cost by at least $28 billion a year."
Mr. Bush chose Pennsylvania for his speech because thousands of doctors recently threatened to strike to protest high insurance costs, which more than doubled last year. The Pennsylvania Medical Society estimates nearly 1,000 doctors have closed their practices since 2001 to avoid yearly premiums as high as $200,000.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said at least seven insurance companies stopped offering medical-liability insurance in Pennsylvania in the last four years because of the "cost of litigation and excess awards."
The House in July passed a bill almost identical to the president's proposal, but the Democrat-controlled Senate killed it by taking no action.
Four Democratic senators have written the president a letter saying Americans will be hurt if Mr. Bush alters malpractice awards.
"These proposed changes in law would deprive seriously injured patients of fair compensation and do nothing to guarantee that doctors could obtain malpractice insurance at a fair price," said the letter signed by Sen. John Edwards, a presidential candidate and personal-injury lawyer from North Carolina, as well as by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
"At every stage of the legal process, the administration's plan systematically rewrites the rules of civil law to tip the balance against patients," they said.

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