President Bush on Wednesday opened a new drive for caps on medical malpractice awards, contending the limits would lower health care costs. Opponents said such ceilings would merely shield doctors and others who provide poor health care.
"I believe the voters made their position clear on Election Day on medical liability reform," Bush said, citing his re-election as evidence of support for a proposal that has passed the House but failed in the Senate.
Bush made his case in Madison County, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The county has been called the "judicial hellhole" of the nation by the American Tort Reform Association last year because of a reputation for huge awards won by plaintiffs.
Area lawyers say the legal situation has been exaggerated and large malpractice awards have been scarce.
"The United States Congress needs to pass real medical liability reform this year," Bush said, slapping his lectern with an open palm to emphasize his point.
Bush warned of a crisis, but said it could be averted if the Republican-controlled Congress adopts his plan.
"This liability system, I'm telling you, is out of control," Bush said. While his proposal has stalled in Congress, Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses in the November elections.
The president wants to place a limit of $250,000 on noneconomic damages, or the pain and suffering portions of malpractice awards. Caps on damage awards of varying types have been put in place in 27 states.
Bush would impose no limits on economic losses suffered at the hands of bad doctors. Bush wants to limit punitive damages to "egregious cases where they are justified" and cap damages to "reasonable amounts," according to White House documents that did not elaborate. He would allow malpractice awards to be paid out over time, instead of in a lump sum, and limit the time over which such suits could be filed after the claimed malpractice.
"Because the system is so unpredictable, there is a constant risk of being hit by a massive jury award," Bush said. "It's a system that's just not fair. It's costly for the doctors, it's costly for small businesses, it's costly for hospitals, it is really costly for patients."
Lawyers who represent malpractice victims and other opponents of Bush's initiative say the real problem is insurers who look to raise premiums and, consequently, the companies' bottom line.