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Bush Seeking to Limit Malpractice Award

By SCOTT LINDLAW, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - President Bush is trying to resuscitate a measure to place nationwide caps on medical malpractice awards, a move he has made a centerpiece of his election-year focus on health care.

Bush argues that a nationwide ceiling would drive down soaring health care costs and save taxpayers money. Senate Democrats stalled the bill last year, arguing it would help the insurance industry, not patients.

In response, the president was issuing a new appeal for the legislation Monday in Little Rock, Ark.

With 43 million Americans uninsured, Bush included in his State of the Union address a five-pillared strategy for confronting the issue most of them repackaged ideas he had previously advocated.

Facing record budget deficits, Bush chose measures that would require little government spending:

Setting medical malpractice limits; helping small businesses to band together to negotiate for lower insurance rates; offering refundable tax credits to help low-income Americans purchase health insurance; creating tax incentives to encourage the use of health savings accounts, which would let people save money for future medical expenses tax-free; and harnessing medical technology to prevent medical errors.

Medical malpractice caps are a favorite remedy of Republicans who seek to tackle rising health care costs.

"We can help control rising health care costs by cutting down on frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.

"Frivolous lawsuits have dramatically increased the cost of medical liability premiums. These costs are passed on to patients in higher bills. These costs are driving doctors from important work, such as delivering babies, and these costs are driving some doctors out of medicine entirely."

As governor of Texas, Bush was a fierce guardian of states' rights, and he long fought against federal mandates on the states.

But nationwide caps on malpractice awards are merited, he has said, because high health care costs are stifling medical innovation, driving doctors out of the business and pricing patients out of insurance.

The legislation that died last year in Congress would have limited the pain and suffering portion of malpractice awards to $250,000 and punitive damages to either the same amount or twice the patient's actual financial loss. The bill, intended to supersede state laws, also would curtail lawyers' fees and patients' ability to file suit over old cases.

White House spokesman Taylor Gross said Bush chose Arkansas as the forum for his speech because the state Legislature last year enacted a limited medical liability cap similar to the one Bush seeks to impose nationwide.

But there was a whiff of politics in the air with Bush's new campaign on malpractice awards.

The effort is an implicit jab at Sen. John Edwards, a Democratic presidential candidate who made millions as a lawyer trying personal injury lawsuits against big companies. He finished a surprising second in the Iowa caucuses last week.

Edwards has said malpractice premiums are not the problem, and contended lawsuits against doctors are not the most significant factor in rising insurance costs.

Moreover, Bush is eager to win Arkansas again a traditionally Democratic state that he narrowly won in 2000 and is the home of another Democratic contender, Wesley Clark.

The president's schedule this week bears the stamp of a campaign that is aggressively up and running.

On Thursday, Bush travels to New Hampshire, another state he narrowly captured in 2000. It also is where voters have been listening to a steady drumbeat of attacks on him from Democrats before Tuesday's presidential primary.

On Saturday, Bush makes his 24th visit to Pennsylvania, a state with a rich trove of 21 electoral votes and one he lost in 2000.

 


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