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President seeks to rein in medical lawsuits 

By James Harding in Washington 

Published: January 17 2003 4:00 | Last Updated: January 17 2003 4:00

President George W. Bush set out yesterday to curb "junk lawsuits" against medical malpractice which he said were driving doctors out of practice and inflating US healthcare costs.

Seizing on a bugbear of the Republican right, Mr Bush called on Congress to pass limits on malpractice awards as he railed against greedy trial lawyers and excessive jury awards.

"We're a litigious society - everybody is suing, it seems like," Mr Bush said, speaking in Pennsylvania where high medical insurance premiums have driven doctors to seek work in other states.

"There are too many lawsuits in America, and there are too many lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals without merit."

Mr Bush calculated that the cost of defending medical malpractice suits and the expense of precautionary procedures to avoid legal action raised the federal government's healthcare costs by $28bn (17.5bn) each year.

After mid-term elections in which Mr Bush led his party to victory, the White House is hoping that a Republican-controlled Congress will repay the favour by advancing Mr Bush's agenda. This means not just setting limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, but also approving the president's tax cut package and approving anti-abortion appointees to the judiciary.

The White House sought passage of a bill last year which would limit non-economic damages - for pain and suffering - to $250,000. The legislation was passed in the Republican-controlled House, but ran aground in the Democrat-led Senate.

Renewing his call for the $250,000 limit on non-economic damages, as well as a cap on punitive damages, Mr Bush employed the language of bipartisanship to press Congress to fix America's "broken" medical liability system.

"This is a national problem, and we just cannot allow a bunch of needless partisanship to prevent a good, solid solution from going forward," he said.

The president's assault on trial lawyers is seen in Washington as a proxy attack on Democrats.

The vast majority of political donations from trial lawyers go to the Democratic party and John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, was a trial lawyer who made his first fortune by winning a malpractice case against a physician.

Mr Bush argued that exorbitant jury awards had inflated the price of medical insurance premiums, costs which were passed on to patients. In some areas, insurance premiums had risen so high that doctors could not afford to pay them.

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