Vice President Dick Cheney Calls for Cap on Noneconomic Damages in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
Speaking before 300 people at the Medical College of Ohio, Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday said the federal government must take action to fix the "broken" medical liability litigation system by enacting a "reasonable federal cap" of $250,000 on noneconomic damages awarded in medical malpractices cases and eliminating "junk lawsuits," the Toledo Blade reports (Wenzel/Shockman, Toledo Blade, 7/20). Cheney said caps are needed to address the medical malpractice issue, adding, "[O]therwise, insurance premiums and patient costs will continue spiraling out of control." Physicians and some Republicans have been calling for malpractice caps in an effort to reduce malpractice premiums, decrease "defensive medicine" -- doctors' use of unnecessary tests and procedures to avoid lawsuits -- and extend higher-quality, lower-cost care to more patients, according to the Washington Post. An HHS report estimates that expenses "traceable to legal liability fears" contribute an estimated $60 billion to $108 billion annually to the nation's $1.6 trillion health care expenditures, the Post reports. As many as 70% of physicians order tests and procedures in case they are sued, according to Donald Palmisano, immediate past president of the American Medical Association. Congress's Joint Economic Committee estimates that a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages would expand health insurance coverage to 4 million more U.S. residents. However, a Congressional Budget Office report found that enacting such malpractice measures would yield benefits for physicians and the government but would reduce private health insurance premiums by about only 0.4%, the Post reports (Connolly, Washington Post, 7/20).
Cheney said action must be taken to stop the proliferation of "junk lawsuits." He said, "Many lawsuits filed against doctors have no merit. Even though they are baseless, these junk lawsuits are expensive to fight, and many doctors, encouraged by their insurance companies, settle out of court." Under the current litigation system, the nation is seeing "[h]uge payoffs for personal injury trial lawyers, smaller shares of compensation for those who have been wronged and massive increases in medical liability insurance premiums for doctors across the country," Cheney said (Toledo Blade, 7/20). He added, "We should get the personal injury trial lawyers out of the practice of medicine" (Seewer, AP/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 7/19).
Cheney criticized presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and his running mate Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), saying they are not committed to reforming the medical malpractice system. "Both Senators Edwards and Kerry have consistently voted against medical liability reform," Cheney said, adding, "I think it's because, frankly, they are too close to the plaintiffs' attorneys that benefit from the system and the way it operates today" (Charton, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 7/19). He said, "When it comes to the legal crisis in American health care, the Kerry-Edwards ticket is on the side of personal-injury trial lawyers, and the Bush-Cheney ticket is on the side of doctors and patients." Cheney also said Edwards is "a trial lawyer who is very experienced at suing doctors" (Washington Post, 7/20).
Jennifer Palmieri, a spokesperson for the Kerry campaign, responded by saying Cheney's claim that Kerry and Edwards have voted against medical liability reform is "Cheney's interpretation, not fact." She added that both Kerry and Edwards during the Democratic primaries proposed making attorneys prove the merit of a case before bringing it to court (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 7/19). Other ideas Kerry introduced during the primaries include shifting largely to a mediation system and sanctioning attorneys with a history of frivolous lawsuits. During a campaign stop in North Carolina, Edwards responded to Cheney's remarks by saying, "Senator Kerry and I stand with families and kids as we always have and as we believe it's important for the president and the vice president to do, instead of being on the side of insurance companies and big drug companies, which is, unfortunately, where [Bush and Cheney] are" (Washington Post, 7/20). APM's "Marketplace Morning Report" on Monday reported on CodeBlueNow, a new project to reform the health care industry, as some analysts say the presidential candidates' plans "don't address the real problems." The segment includes comments from Kathleen O'Connor, a health care analyst who sponsored a national contest to generate ideas for reforming the U.S. health care system (Palmer, "Marketplace Morning Report," APM, 7/19). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.