Bush Calls for Medical Liability Reform
By Jeff Gannon
January 27, 2004
(Talon News) -- President Bush addressed the issue of rising health care costs Monday when he appeared at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. He cited "too many frivolous and junk lawsuits" as a root cause and called for medical liability reform. The President voiced that same concern in his State of the Union address last week, indicating the legislation that failed in Congress last year will be revived for the upcoming election year.
Bush drew a connection between health care costs and unemployment. Bush said, "Rising health care costs are making it difficult for some entities to hire people."
He praised the community health centers where the uninsured or people living in areas without enough doctors can obtain health care and said he was committed to building more of them. Bush noted that the centers are a sensible approach that would take the pressure off the emergency rooms of hospitals. The President will include funding for the construction of 200 more centers in his budget that is soon to be released.
Bush also touched on the Medicare reform legislation passed last year. In defending the first modernization of Medicare since its creation nearly 40 years ago, he repeated a warning to Congress. He said, "If you try to change it and it hurts our seniors, I'll veto the bill."
He described the innovations in the legislation that for the first time provides a prescription drug benefit and preventive health screening. It also establishes health savings accounts, which will allow Americans to save for future medical expenses, tax-free.
The President called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow small businesses to join association health plans to pool risk and have a better negotiation policy with those who offer insurance. He also proposed that lower-income Americans should be helped with health care by refundable tax credits. Bush said, "Those are some practical suggestions for Congress to look at, ways to strengthen the private delivery of medicine, as opposed to strengthening the government involvement in medicine."
He briefly commented that the computerization of medical records would also help to reduce costs before returning to his main theme.
Bush declared, "One of the main cost drivers that has nothing to do with what happens in an operating room or a waiting room -- happen in the courtroom." He said that frivolous and junk lawsuits were responsible for increased insurance premiums and doctor shortages.
He pointed out that medical liability premiums for Arkansas doctors rose more than 150 percent last year, a cost passed along to patients or their employers. He also said that defensive medicine was a factor in the increased costs. He noted that the direct cost of liability insurance and the indirect cost from unnecessary medical procedures raises the federal government's health care costs by at least $28 billion a year.
He took direct aim at the role of trial lawyers in this crisis when he said, "We're doing the right thing by telling people the truth, and that is 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."
Bush argued that "Lawsuits don't heal patients...and they're driving a wedge between the docs and their patients."
He blamed "a culture of lawsuit" in America for causing a majority of doctors to consider early retirement or relocation to states that had some protections against frivolous lawsuits.
The President illustrated his point with the examples of some participants in a roundtable discussion. He told of Sara McBee, a practitioner of family medicine, who was delivering between 80 and 100 babies a year. But because her insurance premiums more than doubled in 2002 she has stopped delivering babies.
Bush singled out Dr. John Wilson, who for three decades traveled to a poor, rural area to deliver medical care. After an unsuccessful lawsuit he was unable to find insurance so he quit going.
He called on Congress to pass legislation that would establish a $250,000 cap on non-economic damage, noting that states that have a hard cap have seen positive results.
The President pointed out, "The problem is, is that some in the United States Senate don't see it that way. That bill I put up there passed the House of Representatives and it's stuck in the Senate. And your senators need to hear from you about a balanced, fair system."
Statistics taken in 2001 by the American Tort Reform Association show that a family of four spends about $2,800 per year in non-direct costs stemming from lawsuit abuse.
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