President Bush demanded congressional action this year to rein in “junk” lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, saying Wednesday that the time had come to impose federal restraints on a system traditionally left to the states.
Taking his tort reform campaign to an Illinois county known as a hotbed of civil litigation, Bush said the prospect of big jury awards in medical malpractice cases was causing insurance rates to soar and doctors to abandon their practices.
“What’s happening all across this country is that lawyers are filing baseless suits against hospitals and doctors.... They know the medical liability system is tilted in their favor,” Bush told a group of medical professionals and business allies.
“Medical liability reform is a national issue, and it requires a national solution.”
Bush’s broadside was the opening round in a legislative battle between some of the nation’s most powerful and well-financed interest groups. Doctors, hospitals, drug makers and other manufacturers who want to limit litigation expenses are lining up against the trial lawyers who represent plaintiffs in personal injury cases.
Bush prodded lawmakers to take action to address three facets of what the White House described as a litigation crisis costing the U.S. economy more than $230 billion a year. The bills sought by Bush would limit damages in malpractice cases, restrict class-action lawsuits and curb asbestos-related litigation.
White House officials said the president wanted the new Congress to tackle legal reform before taking up other top domestic policy priorities such as restructuring Social Security and changing the tax code. The House is expected to heed his call, but he faces uncertain odds in the Senate, where many members are attorneys and where Republicans still lack the votes to cut off Democrat filibusters.
The malpractice legislation backed by Bush would not limit the size of damage awards for medical treatment and lost wages, but it would place a $250,000 ceiling on awards for pain and suffering and other noneconomic damages.
A number of states, including California, have such caps. The U.S. House has voted several times for a $250,000 federal cap on damages, but the measures have stalled in the Senate.
The president and his allies say the prospect of multimillion-dollar judgments is driving a crisis in malpractice insurance rates.
Opponents say caps disproportionately affect children, seniors and stay-at-home mothers who have little or no lost wages on which to base a malpractice award.
“The value of a life should not be equal to the value of a paycheck,” said a full-page newspaper advertisement welcoming the president to Southern Illinois but urging him to reverse course on damage caps. The ad was purchased by an advocacy group allied with trial lawyers.
Bush had a reason for launching his medical liability campaign in Madison County, Ill. Madison and adjacent St. Clair County have been ranked by tort reform advocates as the two worst places in the nation to be sued, based on the number of lawsuits filed and a history of pro-plaintiff rulings by judges who received campaign contributions from trial lawyers.
The medical liability system is “out of control,” Bush said. “And you people in this area and the doctors in this area understand what I’m talking about.”
Nationwide, the cost of malpractice liability caused about half of all hospitals to lose doctors or reduce services, Bush said. In Madison and St. Clair counties, 160 physicians have retired or relocated over the past two years, he said.
“Junk lawsuits change the way docs do their jobs,” Bush said. “Instead of trying to heal the patients, doctors try not to get sued.”
The Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America challenged Bush’s figures, citing statistics showing no loss of physicians in Madison County, the state of Illinois or the nation as a whole.
The group said malpractice costs represented less than 2% of overall healthcare spending.
Before his address, Bush met privately with three physicians, a hospital administrator and a patient who had been negatively affected by the rising cost of malpractice insurance. Neurosurgeon Chris Heffner of Belleville stopped performing brain surgery after his insurance premiums rose to $264,000 a year, the White House said, and Bob Moore shut down the obstetrics unit at Red Bud Regional Hospital after its premiums doubled to $270,000.
The president and his allies argue that the threat of big jury awards is a principal cause of rising malpractice insurance rates.
Trial attorneys contend that other factors are contributing to high rates, including lax regulation of insurance carriers in states such as Illinois. They point to statistics suggesting that the number of big malpractice awards is relatively small, even in high-profile jurisdictions such as Madison County.
Over a seven-year period ending in 2003, six jury verdicts were rendered against defendants in malpractice and wrongful-death cases in Madison and St. Clair counties, and one was large enough to be affected by the proposed $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages, according to court records cited by trial attorneys.
To counter the White House spotlight on distressed doctors and abandoned patients, opponents of liability limits are offering anecdotes in the form of patients and their families who say they were victims of medical malpractice.
One of them is Donna Harnett of Chicago, whose 8-year-old son, Martin, was born with severe mental and physical disabilities following a difficult delivery in a Cook County hospital. Harnett sued the hospital, alleging she was allowed to remain in labor for several hours despite signs of fetal distress, and that an emergency C-section was delayed longer than necessary.
Harnett won a substantial settlement, which she said she could not discuss because she had signed a confidentiality agreement. But she resents the notion that compensation for the pain and suffering experienced by her son, who is a quadriplegic, would be limited to $250,000 under Bush’s proposal.
“If you could just see what my son goes through, all of the operations, the way he sits and watches and knows that he is different, the suffering he goes through every day,” Harnett said. “I would like to see who would have the nerve to say this is worth only $250,000. His life was stolen from him the moment it should have begun.”