Bush renews push for malpractice caps

Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 10:17 p.m.
SCRANTON, Pa. - President Bush said Thursday his proposed nationwide ceilings on medical malpractice awards would drive down health care costs, but critics said he was siding with mismanaged insurance companies that pass inflated costs to patients.
Bush dusted off a proposal he made in July to cap the pain and suffering portions of malpractice awards at $250,000.
Without the limit, Bush said, "excessive jury awards will continue to drive up insurance costs, will put good doctors out of business or run them out of your community and will hurt communities like Scranton, Pa. That's a fact."
Legislation he backed last year was approved in the House but was never brought for a vote in the Democratic-led Senate. Now the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, and for the second time this week Bush revived a proposal that died last year. The other was welfare reform.
"The problem of those unnecessary costs don't start in the waiting room or the operating room. They're in the courtroom," Bush said. "Everybody's suing, it seems like. There are too many lawsuits in America, and there are too many lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals without merit."
Pennsylvania, the state Bush chose for his speech, is important to his re-election, and he has visited it more than any other - 18 times. It is one of 13 states that prohibit capping malpractice awards.
Pennsylvania is also the state with the highest rate in the nation of doctors who repeatedly commit medical malpractice, according to a report this week by a consumer group.
One out of every 10 doctors in the state has lost or settled at least two malpractice lawsuits, according to the study by Public Citizen, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Moreover, the report showed, half of all the money awarded in Pennsylvania medical malpractice cases were paid on behalf of doctors settling three or more complaints.
Public Citizen Counsel Jackson Williams said, "If you stop those doctors, you will have eliminated half of all the malpractice payoffs in the state - which presumably would reduce insurance" rates.
In Pennsylvania, insurance costs for doctors more than doubled last year for thousands of the state's physicians. An estimated 900 doctors have left the state since 2001 to avoid paying malpractice premiums as high as $200,000 annually, said Dr. Edward Dench, a State College anesthesiologist who serves as president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
There were dual political dimensions to Bush's latest trip to a state he lost to Al Gore in 2000. He wants to win Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest trove of electoral votes in presidential elections. And the proposal gave him a new opportunity to strike at a Democrat some in the White House view as a potentially formidable 2004 opponent, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Edwards made millions trying personal injury lawsuits against big companies, and is seeking the Democratic nomination.
The senator said Thursday that Bush was "once again standing with his insider friends in the insurance industry and standing against seriously injured children and families."
"The truth is the insurance industry has done poorly in the market and is simply passing those costs on to doctors and patients," Edwards said. "Evidence from 30 years shows that the things President Bush is proposing will do nothing to reduce the premiums that doctors pay."
Edwards called for stopping frivolous lawsuits and cracking down on the small percentage of doctors responsible for the majority of malpractice cases.
Americans for Insurance Reform, a coalition of 100 consumer and public-interest groups, said the solution to rising health care costs is in changing the business practices of the insurance industry.
"Pennsylvania's insurance crisis has not been caused by the legal system or jury verdicts," the group said, citing a new study it conducted. "Rather, it is a self-inflicted phenomenon caused by the mismanaged underwriting practices of the insurance industry."
Sammy Aritz, 52, a University of Scranton carpenter working on the stage where Bush spoke, said he just wanted politicians to come up with a solution.
His wife, Karen, a nurse at Community Medical Center in Scranton, had her hours cut after doctors there threatened a walkout, she said.
"She is hoping they solve it. That's her livelihood," Aritz said. "We want to keep the good doctors here. Come up with a happy medium with the doctors, the lawyers and the insurance company."

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