President Bush’s Medical Malpractice Proposal Faces Several Roadblocks
As President Bush is scheduled Wednesday to "launch a major campaign" to address medical malpractice lawsuits, advocates of tort reform are saying "public opinion is cresting in their favor," but some business interests and Republicans on Capitol Hill "warn that prospects for change are less favorable than many had assumed," the Washington Post reports (VandeHei/Harris, Washington Post, 1/5). Bush, who has said he will make medical malpractice reform a priority in his second term to help spur the U.S. economy, is expected to discuss the topic with more than 1,000 physicians, business leaders and Republican officials in a speech Wednesday in Collinsville, Ill.
The campaign includes three primary reforms: capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, possibly at $250,000; restricting the scope of class-action lawsuits; and limiting lawsuits against makers and sellers of asbestos-filled products. Bush is highlighting Madison County, Ill., which includes Collinsville, in his campaign because the area is known for the high number of lawsuits filed there (California Healthline, 1/4).
Although gains by Republicans in the recent election led Bush and other party members to "be[t] that 2005 will be the year for big strides" in tort reform, several issues "spell trouble for one of the most far-reaching proposals in the Senate," where Democrats have previously stalled malpractice legislation, according to business lobbyists and Senate leadership aides, the Post reports. According to the Post, the "problematic arithmetic of the Senate" -- where Republicans lack the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster -- "sets up an important test of a second-term influence and governing strategy."
Bush most likely will face the strongest opposition on his proposal to cap noneconomic awards in medical malpractice lawsuits at $250,000. While other proposals, including the class-action measure, could fare better, "they will require compromises of the sort that Bush and the GOP last year were unwilling to make to win Democrats," the Post reports. Supporters and opponents of the tort reform efforts agree that the least far-reaching proposals, such as a measure to prevent obese people from suing fast-food chains, are most likely to pass, according to the Post. Republicans also "do not have a unified front" on the issue, with such lawmakers as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizing the proposals as "among the worst bills facing this Congress," the Post reports.
An unnamed Republican said, "The dirty little secret in Washington is the trial lawyers have a few Republicans in their pocket."
Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, said that malpractice is "more challenging at the federal level in particular because you are dealing with caps on damages, and that's a tough issue in the Senate."
Kristen Silverberg, deputy domestic policy adviser to Bush, added, "There is no question that there are firmly entrenched interests who will fight litigation reform every step of the way. But I do think the climate is changing."
Opponents of Bush's proposal held a news conference in Madison County, Ill., on Tuesday, highlighting a woman whose mother died because of post-surgical mistakes and negligence at a hospital. Linda Lipsen, head of public affairs for Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said tort reform critics should continue presenting similar anecdotes and not allow Bush to set the terms of the debate. "It's not about Marcus Welby. It's about HMOs, insurance companies and drug companies who think this is their day in the sun to evade accountability," Lipsen said (VandeHei/Harris, Washington Post, 1/5).
The Post on Wednesday examined how Bush's medical malpractice proposal would "prevent consumers from seeking punitive damages" from drug makers and other health-related businesses. Bush's bill would protect companies from certain damages in malpractice cases regarding FDA-approved drugs, although it is unclear whether the proposal would limit just punitive damages or noneconomic damages as well. With recent news questioning the safety of such drugs as the painkillers Vioxx and Celebrex, opponents of tort reform "are making the provision a key argument against the Bush plan," and supporters "privately say" the measure might need to be altered to win approval, the Post reports.
Todd Smith, president of the ATLA, said, "Bush unashamedly advocates legislation that would protect insurance industry profits and prohibit any punishment for the makers of dangerous drugs like Vioxx." However, Victor Schwartz of the American Tort Reform Association said that the provision would only protect companies that meet FDA standards, adding, "There is no entitlement to punitive damages. If you have done everything the law requires, why should you be punished?" (VandeHei, Washington Post, 1/5).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday said that legislation to reform class-action lawsuits should reach the Senate floor early next month, CongressDaily reports. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who introduced similar legislation last year that stalled over debate on amendments, plans to reintroduce the measure shortly after Inauguration Day, a spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that the legislation, which will mirror the previous bill, has received pledges of support from more than 60 senators. Frist said, "I'm confident we'll pass this bill and take a big first step to restoring sanity and fairness to our legal system."
Stanton Anderson, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Class Action Fairness Coalition, said that while the bill would gain "four or five more votes" this time around, "I don't think it's a slam dunk." He added, "I think there has to be an appropriate process of debate" (Peterson, CongressDaily, 1/5).
AP/Las Vegas Sun: The AP/Sun on Tuesday looked at Bush's efforts to "personaliz[e]" the issue by meeting with physicians and patients who have been affected by rising malpractice premium rates. "We don't want to have to see pregnant mothers having their OB/GYN doctor go out of business or move to another area because they can't afford to practice their medicine," White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said (Pickler, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 1/4).
- APM's "Marketplace": The program on Tuesday reported on Bush's upcoming speech. The segment includes comments from Anderson; Joanne Doroshow, president and executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy; Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association; and physicians who will attend the speech (Wicai, "Marketplace," APM, 1/4). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Journal-Constitution on Wednesday examined Madison County, Ill., which legal reform advocates have labeled the No. 1 "judicial hellhole" in the nation (Malone, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/5).
Baltimore Sun: Bush has a "narrow window" in which to "push ideas through Congress before he is regarded as a lame duck," the Sun reports. According to the Sun, Bush plans to promote his second-term agenda by "following a blueprint he used in 2001 to promote his first tax cut," including speaking to voters in districts where a local lawmaker opposes his proposals (Greene, Baltimore Sun, 1/5).
Los Angeles Times: While doctors in Madison County, Ill., have "fle[d]" from the area to avoid medical malpractice litigation, "there are signs the medical malpractice crisis may be easing" there, the Los Angeles Times reports (Vieth, Los Angeles Times, 1/5).
New York Post: The New York Post on Wednesday looked at how Madison County, Ill., became known as a "judicial hellhole," a so-called "nirvana" for filing class-action lawsuits (Orin, New York Post, 1/5).
New York Times: The New York Times on Wednesday examined how the Bush administration is examining how "more effective discipline of incompetent doctors could significantly alleviate the problem of medical malpractice litigation." The administration has commissioned a study by the University of Iowa and the Urban Institute to help state boards of medical examiners "identify those doctors most likely to make mistakes that injure patients and lead to lawsuits." According to the New York Times, the research "is noteworthy because Bush, in numerous speeches, has sided with doctors against plaintiffs' lawyers" (Pear, New York Times, 1/5).