- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

In a landmark speech last Thursday in Scranton, Pa., President Bush emphasized the need to tackle the medical malpractice lawsuit crisis. Since July, the crisis has, among other things, threatened the financial existence of emergency trauma centers in Nevada, forced hospitals in northern West Virginia to rush emergency patients out of state for treatment and jeopardized the ability of pregnant women in rural Mississippi to find obstetricians. The American Medical Association lists 12 states' medical delivery systems as being in serious trouble due to soaring malpractice insurance costs. But, with powerful trial-lawyer lobbying groups adamantly opposed to any limits on the seven-figure awards (and more) available to them under the current system, any reform proposal faces a difficult, uphill fight. In short, the problem is sure to grow worse before it gets any better.
In his Scranton speech, Mr. Bush made clear that Congress needs to pass tort-reform legislation and outlined a series of principles governing what a new, more equitable system would look like. "People who have got a claim, a legitimate claim, must have a hearing in our courts. Somebody who has suffered at the hands of a lousy doc must be protected. And they deserve a court that is uncluttered by frivolous and junk lawsuits," the president said. If they can prove in court that they deserve to collect damages, "they should be able to recover the cost of their care and recovery and lost wages and economic losses for the rest of their life," he added.
At the same time, however, Mr. Bush urged Congress to approve a cap of $250,000 awards for non-economic damages in malpractice cases. "Excessive jury awards will continue to drive up insurance costs, put good doctors out of business or run them out of your community," he said. Mr. Bush also emphasized that it "costs money to fight off a junk lawsuit." So, many times, doctors and insurance companies decide to settle rather than take their chances with costly jury verdicts," he said. "You can pretty well blackmail a doctor into settlement if you continue to throw lawsuit after lawsuit, and the system looks like a giant lottery."
Although the president explained the challenge with great clarity, he faces a difficult fight on Capitol Hill. In the Republican House, where tort-reform legislation passed in September, Rep. Jim Greenwood, Pennsylvania Republican, is expected to introduce legislation next week similar to that proposed by Mr. Bush, and tort-reform advocates stand a good chance of getting something through. In the Senate, where the Democratic leadership blocked the House bill from coming to a vote, such legislation faces a difficult, uphill fight. In July, the Senate defeated by a 57-42 vote a watered-down tort-reform amendment introduced by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. Six Republican senators (Richard Shelby of Alabama, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and George Allen of Virginia) voted against the McConnell amendment. On the positive side, Sen. Bill Frist, the new Senate majority leader and a doctor, is committed to working to change a badly flawed, unbalanced tort system.
But for this to occur during the current Congress (or at any time in the near future), it will require a sustained campaign by President Bush and America's medical community to educate the public as to the perils of continuing the untenable status quo.

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