COLLINSVILLE, Ill. – President Bush pressured Congress Wednesday to limit jury awards for medical malpractice, saying the current legal system leans toward lawyers who file baseless cases that drive up the cost of health care.
"What I'm here to do is say as clearly as I can — the United States Congress needs to pass real medical liability reform this year," Bush said, standing on stage in front of dozens of doctors in white lab coats at the Gateway Center in Collinsville, Ill., located near St. Louis.
"When I see members of the Congress, as I work this issue, I'm going to say 'I spoke to the good folks of southern Illinois, they understand the problem and they expect you — members of the United States Senate and members of the United States House of Representatives — to get the job done," Bush added.
In his first speechmaking trip of the new year and the first ever of a sitting president to Collinsville, Bush said that large malpractice awards (search) have increased the cost of business so much that doctors have to close their businesses or scale back services. He said it also drives up the cost of personal health insurance (search).
"Many of the costs we are talking about don't start in an examining room or an operating room, they start in a courtroom," Bush said.
"There is a constant risk of being hit by a massive jury award, so doctors end up paying tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to settle a medical claim out of court even when they know they have done nothing wrong."
Exhibit A in Bush's case is Madison County, Ill. (search), across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, named the country's top "judicial hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Association last year because of its reputation for big awards.
Lawyers in the area say the legal situation has been exaggerated and Bush is demonizing the county even though large malpractice awards have been scarce. Leading Democrats in Congress say the number of doctors practicing in Illinois has risen in recent years, despite higher malpractice insurance rates that they say are driven by the state's weak insurance regulation.
Bush personalized his point by meeting with a neurosurgeon, an obstetrician gynecologist, a cardiologist, a hospital administrator and a pregnant woman who had to change doctors repeatedly because so many were going out of business.
Bush's visit to Madison County was one of several events this week to win congressional and public support for tort reform. Bush faces strong opposition from Democrats in Congress, who say patients deserve the right to seek awards, without arbitrary ceilings, for medical mistakes.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called the president's plan "nothing but a shameful shield for drug companies and HMOs who hurt people through negligence." He urged the president to offer a plan that puts patients first.
"Congress should not be giving a free pass to big drug companies at a time when millions of Americans may have had their health put at risk by pharmaceutical giants. And we should not be enacting measures that will drive up profits for the insurance industry but have little impact on prices for doctors and families," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement.
"The skyrocketing cost of health care is a critical issue facing this country, and we must all work together to bring down costs for working families. If the president is serious about bringing down health care costs, Senate Democrats stand ready to work with him to enact reforms that deal with the health care crisis in a meaningful way."
On Thursday, Bush is inviting members of both parties in Congress to discuss the issue in the White House. On Friday, he plans a trip to Clinton, Mich., focused on asbestos lawsuits, which represent the longest-running mass tort litigation in U.S. history.
Congressional leadership has vowed to bring up the issue of medical malpractice and tort reform early on in the new term after suffering defeat in the previous. Bush likely will use his bully pulpit to push the new Congress into action. He has a number of fellow Republicans, though, like Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, to cajole before he can hope to get the reforms through. Graham was quoted recently on medical malpractice reform legislation saying, "This bill is a political document."
Caps on damage awards of varying types have been implemented in 27 states, but a proposed federal cap, though successful in the House, was defeated because of Democratic opposition in the Senate.
Republicans strengthened their majorities in both chambers and intend to work again with Bush to impose a nationwide cap on pain and suffering awards. Bush wants a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages that compensate for pain and suffering, along with other limits.
"Lawyers are filing baseless suits against hospitals and doctors, that's just a plain fact," Bush said. "They are doing it for a simple reason — they know the medical liability system is tilted in their favor."
But the lawyers who win those awards for malpractice victims and other opponents of Bush's initiative say the real problem is insurers who look to raise premiums and, consequently, their bottom line. They also use personal stories to tell their side, such as a woman who said doctors switched her test results and mistakenly told her she had breast cancer before amputating both her breasts. She is featured in a $250,000 television ad buy in the St. Louis and Washington markets to coincide with Bush's visit.
FOX News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.