Thursday, January 6, 2005

President Bush traveled yesterday to an area of Illinois that he called a hotbed of “junk lawsuits” to press Congress to pass a liability reform bill that addresses “the root causes of rising medical costs.”

Speaking to a hand-picked audience in Madison County — a community in southern Illinois that ranks No. 1 in class-action suits — Mr. Bush said the costs of litigation against doctors raises the costs of health care for everyone.

“Doctors pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle claims out of court, even when they know they have done nothing wrong,” he said. “It’s a system that is just not fair. It’s costly for doctors. It’s costly for small businesses. It’s costly for hospitals. And it’s really costly for patients.”

Madison County has seen a 5,200 percent increase in class-action suits since 1998. The county, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, set a record with 106 class-action suits in 2004, up from 77 in 2003 and two in 1998.

The county has become known as “America’s Class-Action Capital,” with some of the biggest awards against corporations in recent years. One such case in the county last year resulted in a $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris USA, which was accused of defrauding smokers by marketing light brands of cigarettes as safer than regular brands.

A Madison County jury in October also awarded $1 million to a local man who said he developed Parkinson’s disease from welding fumes. It was the first successful case against the makers of welding rods.

Mr. Bush would like to see a cap of $250,000 on the awards for pain and suffering and restrictions on punitive damages — the part of a judgment that often accounts for the lion’s share of financial compensation — to cases of “truly egregious wrongdoing.”

“This liability system, I’m telling you, is out of control,” Mr. Bush said.

The president said he thought at one time that the tort problem could be solved at the state level but now sees it as a “national problem” because only 27 states have implemented restrictions, Illinois not among them.

Mr. Bush also said he would like malpractice awards to be paid out gradually rather than in a lump sum that puts doctors at the risk of bankruptcy.

Mr. Bush said “frivolous litigation” has cost the U.S. economy $230 billion a year.

“Because the system is so unpredictable, there is a constant risk of being hit by a massive jury award,” he said.

Opponents of the plan, however, say the president is merely trying to shield drug companies, insurance providers and doctors from the only recourse for injured parties.

“Whether it’s big corporations or members of Congress, it’s wrong to have one set of rules for those in power and another for everyone else,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “When drug companies or HMOs hurt people, they should be held to account, just like everyone else. Yet, the president’s medical malpractice plan is nothing but a shameful shield for drug companies and HMOs who hurt people through negligence.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have authority over any malpractice reforms, said he would oppose Mr. Bush’s proposals.

“We already knew the ways the president’s plan helps the insurance companies, but this week we learned that it also sides with the drug companies over consumers by letting drug makers off the hook when patients are injured by drugs,” Mr. Leahy said.

“If Congress is serious about controlling rising medical malpractice insurance premiums, then we must enact tough insurance reforms to promote real competition in the insurance industry.”

Mr. Bush and Republicans have blamed the powerful trial lawyers lobby — one of the largest contributors to Democrats — for thwarting past attempts at liability reform.

“It’s hard work for some in Congress to stand up to the trial lawyers,” Mr. Bush said. “I understand that. But all we’re asking for is fairness.”

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