WASHINGTON – President Bush called on Congress Thursday to pass a bill limiting medical malpractice lawsuits that he says are driving up the costs of health care.
In the 18th trip of his presidency to politically important Pennsylvania, Bush called on Congress to deliver his solution to high malpractice insurance costs: a nationwide cap on the amount that injured patients can win from doctors.
The House passed a bill last year that would put a $250,000 ceiling on punitive and "non-economic damages" awarded by juries. It stalled in the Senate.
"I'm ready to start over," Bush said, urging partisanship to not stop "a good solution from going forward."
"The Senate must not fail its responsibility to the American people again," he told an audience at the University of Scranton, in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Bush also called for medical liability reform "so doctors can take care of their patients without fear that their advice will be used against them someday."
Bush's proposed measure wouldn't cap damages for actual financial losses, such as wages and medical expenses. But it would supersede state laws 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.
"Our medical liability system is broken and therefore, a lot of Americans don't have access to affordable health care."
Out of every $100 spent in the United States, $11 goes to paying for health care costs, Bush said, and those costs are rising at their fastest rate in nearly a decade.
"There are too many lawsuits in America and there are too many lawsuits filed against doctors in America without merit," Bush said. He added that unnecessary costs "don't start in the waiting room or the operating room, they're in the courtroom."
Any proposal for tort reform cranks up opposition, and Democrats were aggressively promoting their views before and after Bush's speech.
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.
If the president is serious about addressing the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance rates, he should focus his efforts on reforming the insurance industry and reigning in its control over our health care system. A $250,000 cap on the awards that victims of medical practice could receive effectively bars the door to compensation for thousands of patients who are seriously harmed by medical errors," Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said in response to the president's plan.
On Wednesday, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and other Democratic senators wrote the president to oppose his plan. Edwards, a hopeful for the Democratic presidential nomination, made millions as an attorney who tried personal injury lawsuits before being elected to Congress.
"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," the letter read. "At every stage of the legal process, the administration's plan systematically rewrites the rules of civil law to tip the balance against patients."
But Bush said the rising costs have doctors practicing "defensive medicine," overcautiously ordering tests for patients to protect themselves from lawsuits. The effect is waste and the losers in the end are the patients whose local hospitals and clinics will have to cut back on services, he said.
Bush said 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. Federal health care costs spike to the tune of $28 billion a year, he said, which means costs of veterans' health, government employee, Medicare and Medicaid programs also go up.
Bush also proposed refundable tax credits he said could be used by taxpayers to pay for health care costs; pushed for more community health centers; and said Medicare is in desperate need of repair and the solution must include a comprehensive prescription drug plan.
"We've got a system that's stuck in the past -- Medicare's stuck," Bush said.
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 cut back on scheduled operations for January in anticipation.
Gov.-elect Ed Rendell, a Democrat, proposed a one-year insurance-rate break to ease the situation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.