- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

President Bush yesterday renewed his call to contain “frivolous” malpractice lawsuits that he says are driving up health care costs.

His speech in Little Rock, Ark., was a demonstration of the power of the bully pulpit in an election year: Traveling to the home state of one potential Democratic rival, Wesley Clark, Mr. Bush criticized trial lawyers — the former profession of another rival, Sen. John Edwards — while focusing on the key issue of health care.

Speaking to doctors and staff at Little Rock’s Baptist Health Medical Center, the president called on Congress to pass his proposal to limit medical malpractice lawsuits to $250,000 in order to keep down the cost of health care.

“We got too many darn lawsuits, too many frivolous and junk lawsuits, that are affecting people,” Mr. Bush said. “People [are] just filing these lawsuits right and left, and it’s running up the costs.”

Noting that medical liability premiums for Arkansas physicians rose more than 150 percent last year — which has driven some doctors out of the state — the president said his plan would reserve punitive damages for cases in which they were justified and limit them to “reasonable amounts.”

“See, lawsuits not only drive up premiums, which drives up the cost to the patient or the employer of the patient, but lawsuits cause docs to practice medicine in an expensive way in order to protect themselves in the courthouse,” he said.

“Ninety percent of Arkansas doctors say the fear of lawsuits [has] caused them to do unnecessary procedures,” the president said, and such “defensive medicine” drives up the government’s health care costs by $28 billion a year.

Mr. Bush, who has said repeatedly that he is not ready to begin running for re-election but has made several recent stops that smack of campaign politics, chose Arkansas because “it’s a national problem that requires a national solution, and the president takes this message everywhere,” said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan.

The problem, however, is far worse in nearly a dozen other states.

But Mr. Bush’s stop gave him a chance to upstage the state’s home candidate, Mr. Clark, and criticize another contender, Mr. Edwards. The senator from North Carolina, who has moved up in the polls for today’s New Hampshire primary after finishing a surprisingly strong second in Iowa, became a multimillionaire as one of the country’s most successful personal injury lawyers, winning huge damage awards against corporations and hospitals on behalf of individuals.

“The health care system looks like a giant lottery. That’s what it looks like these days because of these lawsuits. And somehow, the trial lawyers always hold the winning ticket. Lawyers walk away with up to 40 percent — 40 percent — of every settlement and verdict, which adds up to billions of costs, billions of unnecessary costs,” said Mr. Bush, who never mentioned either Democrat by name.

The Clark campaign had no comment about Mr. Bush’s visit; a spokesman for Mr. Edwards did not return phone calls.

Democrats, including Mr. Edwards, warn that Mr. Bush’s proposed cap on awards would prevent seriously injured patients from getting fair compensation and would not guarantee doctors malpractice insurance at a fair price.

Mr. Bush is standing “with his insider friends in the insurance industry and standing against seriously injured children and families,” Mr. Edwards said last year when the president visited Pennsylvania to deliver a speech on the topic.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate last year thwarted Mr. Bush’s plan to limit noneconomic damage awards — mostly for “pain and suffering” — to $250,000. The proposal also would reduce lawyers’ fees and curtail patients’ ability to file suit over old cases.

Mr. Bush noted the case of Dr. Sara McBee, a Fayetteville, Ark., practitioner who was delivering between 80 and 100 babies a year until her insurance premiums more than doubled in 2002.

“Dr. McBee has stopped delivering babies as a direct result of too many junk lawsuits. And that’s not right. That’s not right,” Mr. Bush said. “We can have balance in our society when it comes to having a good legal system and a good medical system. It’s not that way today. The pendulum has swung way, way too far,” he said to applause.


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