Tort Reform Faces State Challenges

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As President Bush and the expanded Republican majorities in Congress consider ways to press tort reform (search), they may want to take a look at efforts in the states, where reforms are now subject to court challenges.

In Virginia, doctors are entering the fray in an effort to see tort reforms, in this case medical malpractice (search) and liability reforms, save the industry from hemorrhaging professionals.

Bush strongly pushed for tort reform throughout the campaign. The GOP-led Congress will push for the pro-business moves to reduce the number of lawsuits and limit certain financial penalties.

But Virginia orthopedic surgeon Bill Hazel says he isn't waiting for Congress. He's lobbying state lawmakers instead.

"The goal of whatever is done is to stabilize the cost of liability insurance so people can afford it," Hazel told FOX News. "We have seen increases of 10 percent to 20 percent over the last couple of years."

Doctors buy liability insurance to protect against malpractice suits. The crush of lawsuits is cited as the reason for the increased cost of insurance. Higher premiums have forced some doctors out of business and forced others to avoid higher-risk patients.

Bob McDonnell, chairman of the House Courts and Justice Committee (search) in the Virginia House of Delegates, says executive lawsuits are also driving insurance companies out of the market.

"We've seen the number of insurance carriers shrink from about 14 down to about five," McDonnell said.

As a result, doctors sometimes settle weak cases and pass the costs onto their patients. But now, some doctors are fighting back.

"The doctors have organized in a way that I've never seen before in my 14 years in the House of Delegates," McDonnell said.

But Virginia trial lawyers say radical changes in Virginia law are not needed.

"We have conservative judges and conservative juries. We have not had a problem of runaway verdicts in this state and there's not much left to do here," said attorney Chuck Zauzig.

Zauzig said trial lawyers are not the problem, profit-hungry insurance companies are.

"Insurance companies are still making profits at the same time they are increasing the premiums that they are charging doctors. The one party in this triad of patient, physician and insurance company that is making out on it is the insurance companies," he said.

Back in Congress, the gain of four Republican Senate seats means a breakthrough in the two-decade deadlock over tort reform is closer than ever. But states like Virginia are now warning Congress not to move so fast as a one-size-fits-all federal solution may create more problems than it solves.

Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Major Garrett.