Washington Post Examines Stalled Federal Effort To Limit Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
The Washington Post on Sunday examined how President Bush "rarely mentions" medical malpractice reform in speeches during his second term, despite previous campaigning on the issue (Birnbaum/Harris, Washington Post, 4/3). Following his re-election, Bush said he would make changes to the medical malpractice system a priority in his second term to help spur the U.S. economy.
The administration launched a campaign that included three primary ideas: 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 (California Healthline, 1/7). In his State of the Union address on Feb. 2, Bush said that he considered limiting medical malpractice lawsuits an important goal for his second term. However, Bush's call has proven ineffective at changing the "legislative arithmetic for the idea," according to the Post.
The Senate last year voted on several variations of the proposal but never reached enough votes to approve the measures. This session, there are four additional Republican votes in the Senate, but lawmakers and lobbyists have said that any bill "that fits the president's preferences" still does not have enough support, the Post reports. The House is likely to pass a medical malpractice bill; however, Senate Democrats have vowed to block such a measure by using a filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to stop a filibuster. Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate; some Republicans do not support the measure, according to the Post.
Opposition to limiting medical malpractice suits might "signal a turn in Bush's fortunes on domestic policy," after the president won "large and comparatively easy victories" on class-action litigation. According to the Post, "The difference between the class-action and medical malpractice bills illuminates the extent -- as well as the limits -- of Bush's influence." In addition, many legislators are "loath to whack the powerful trial-lawyer lobby more than once in a single year," according to the Post.
White House spokesperson Trent Duffy said that medical malpractice legislation "is one of the top priorities for the president; he campaigned vigorously on it. He is going to push very hard." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supports the proposal, has "tacitly acknowledged" that the bill might require changes to succeed. Frist recently said that he would consider "all kinds of options" to change the original bill, including a higher limit on damages. Frist also urged Democrats to "come to the table."
According to the Post, the Senate has no imminent plans to act on the bill. Frist spokesperson Bob Stevenson said, "The majority leader clearly feels this is a crisis, affecting both the cost and access to health care." He added that in his efforts to work with Democrats to strike a compromise, "We have not found the mother lode, but we are finding some areas of common ground."
Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who opposes the president's proposal, said, "I would respectfully suggest that [Republicans] don't want a deal on this issue" (Washington Post, 4/3).