Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cheney pushes for cap on malpractice awards

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday blamed rising health-care costs on "runaway litigation" and promoted a $250,000 cap on medical-malpractice awards as the central tenet of the White House program to improve access, cost and quality of care.

Articulating a health policy vision nearly opposite the one advocated by the Democratic presidential ticket, Cheney promoted individual tax credits, additional community health centers and more modern technology as ways to help Americans afford top-notch medical care.

But it was medical malpractice that dominated his address yesterday at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, and it is limits on lawsuit damages that remain the single most ambitious proposal of the Republican ticket's health-care agenda.

"This problem doesn't start in the waiting room," Cheney said in remarks released by the campaign. "It doesn't start in the operating room. The problem starts in the courtroom."

With lawsuits on the rise and multimillion-dollar awards garnering headlines, physicians and many Republicans say limiting damages would solve challenges confronting the U.S. health system. They say capping damages would lead to lower malpractice premiums, which would reduce doctors' use of unnecessary tests and procedures, known as defensive medicine. Those improvements would result in better care at lower cost, enabling more people to buy coverage.

"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 said, noting that vice-presidential candidate John Edwards "is a trial lawyer who is very experienced at suing doctors."

The Bush team has decided to spotlight tort reform because "most people in this country have some form of insurance and they're worried about how much it costs," said senior strategist Matthew Dowd.

A report by the Department of Health and Human Services found that expenses traceable to legal-liability fears contribute between $60 billion and $108 billion a year to the total $1.6 trillion health-care bill. Legislation imposing a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages would result in 4 million more people receiving health insurance, according to the Joint Economic Committee.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office said the malpractice bill would benefit doctors and the government but reduce private health-insurance premiums by a scant 0.4 percent.

"The Bush administration largely gets it backwards," said Columbia University law professor and physician William Sage. "They say health care is expensive because of lawsuits. I say lawsuits are expensive because of our health-care system."

Edwards and Sen. John Kerry have consistently voted against limits on damage awards, arguing that malpractice suits have little impact on health spending but remain an important option for patients injured by medical errors.

"Sen. 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 they are," Edwards said during a campaign stop in North Carolina.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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