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Prez Wants To Put Clamp On Injury Suits

President George W. Bush, against backdrop of caduceus, for story about proposed changes in medical malpractice law, 1-16-03
AP / CBS
President Bush says that when it comes to what ails America's health-care system, the problem isn't in the operating room, but rather the courtroom.

"There are too many lawsuits in America and there are too many lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals without merit," Mr. Bush told an audience Thursday at the University of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller reports the president is again calling on Congress to impose limits on jury awards in malpractice cases: no more than a quarter-million dollars for pain and suffering and a similar cap on punitive damages.

Those limits, Mr. Bush said, could restrain the rising costs of malpractice premiums that are driving some doctors out of the business.

"Even though the lawsuits are junk lawsuits and they have no basis, they're still expensive," Mr. Bush said in his 18th trip as president to the politically important state of Pennsylvania.

Any proposal for tort reform cranks up opposition, and Democrats are already howling loudly about the president's expected proposals. Some groups also plan demonstrations to underscore that point of view.

Democrats argue that large jury awards are not the issue. They say the insurance industry is to blame for hiking premiums beyond many doctors' reach. They also believe that Americans' ability to hold physicians legally accountable is a crucial component of quality health care.

"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 a letter sent to Mr. Bush Wednesday by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and three other Democratic senators.

"At every stage of the legal process, the administration's plan systematically rewrites the rules of civil law to tip the balance against patients."

One of the senators signing the letter was North Carolina's John Edwards, a hopeful for the Democratic presidential nomination and a lawyer who made millions trying personal injury lawsuits before he was elected to Congress.

Physicians, especially in high-risk specialties, complain that skyrocketing insurance rates are driving them to close or scale back their practices. That leaves patients confronting doctor shortages or rising health care costs in many communities.

In New Jersey, doctors are planning a partial work stoppage next month to protest soaring malpractice premiums. Surgeons at several West Virginia hospitals walked off the job in protest Jan. 1, but most have returned to work as a reform bill moves through the state legislature.

In Pennsylvania, scores of hospitals were faced earlier this month with a mass walkout by doctors protesting high insurance costs, which more than doubled last year for thousands of physicians in the state. The Pennsylvania Medical Society estimates 900 doctors have left the state since 2001 to avoid annual premiums as high as $200,000.

Dozens of doctors in Scranton were among those effectively threatening to strike. The 200-bed Mercy Hospital the president is visiting cut back on scheduled operations for January in anticipation of the possibility of a strike.

Gov.-elect Ed Rendell, a Democrat, proposed a one-year insurance-rate break to ease the situation.

Despite his states' rights credentials, Mr. Bush believes in a nationwide cap. He argues that states' failure to adopt liability limits on their own is damaging the nation's health care system and costing the federal government billions in higher health costs.

Bush-backed legislation was approved in the House last year but was never brought for a vote in the then-Democratic-led Senate.

That measure would not cap damages for actual financial losses such as wages and medical expenses. But it would have superseded state laws - such as Pennsylvania's ban on capping malpractice awards - to limit non-economic 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 be limited and lawyers' fees curtailed.