Bush stumping for liability reform in "judicial hellhole"

The president stresses the need for a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted Jan. 24, 2005

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President Bush wasted no time this year in bringing medical liability reform to the forefront.

For his first trip of 2005, he chose Madison County, Ill. -- the county that the American Tort Reform Assn. for the past two years named the nation's No. 1 "judicial hellhole" because of its high lawsuit rate.

"America's health care professionals should be focused on fighting illnesses, not on fighting lawsuits," Bush said, drawing applause from the audience of doctors. "Junk lawsuits change the way docs do their job. Instead of trying to heal the patients, doctors try not to get sued. Makes sense, doesn't it? If you're worried about getting sued, you do everything you can to make sure you don't get sued."

During his Jan. 5 speech, which came just before Congress was to start its new session, Bush asked lawmakers to send him a meaningful medical liability bill in 2005. He targeted that message in particular to the Senate. The House during the last session passed tort reform twice; the Senate failed to act because there weren't enough votes to prevent a filibuster.

Bush's position mirrors the American Medical Association's stance. Tort reform that includes a $250,000 noneconomic damages cap is the AMA's highest legislative priority.

AMA President John C. Nelson, MD, MPH, said Bush's timing reaffirms the importance of the need for federal liability reforms.

"It shows that he is serious about doing something about the issue," Dr. Nelson pointed out. "It bodes very well for the physicians and patients of America."

Illinois physicians also hope that the high-profile visit will spur the Illinois Legislature to pass reforms this year. The state is one of 20 that the AMA lists as being in a full-blown medical liability insurance crisis.

"Illinois cannot afford a 'three-peat' of its unflattering designation," said Kenneth J. Printen, MD, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, referring to Madison County's "judicial hellhole" ranking.

But trial lawyers warn that the president's proposed reforms won't help fix the system.

Todd A. Smith, president of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, said Bush is diverting attention from real problems, including uninsured Americans and medical errors.

"While perpetuating myths, President Bush unashamedly advocates legislation that would protect insurance industry profits and prohibit any punishment for the makers of dangerous drugs like Vioxx, while penalizing your mother for being abused in a nursing home or your daughter for having her baby killed by medical malpractice," Smith said.

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