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For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
July 19, 2004
Vice President's Remarks at the Medical College of Ohio
Dana Conference Center, Medical College of Ohio
5:06 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. (Applause.) Good afternoon. (Applause.) Well, thank you very much. Nice Ohio welcome -- thank you, Doctor. I appreciate that introduction. It's great to be in Toledo and have an opportunity to be back in Ohio. We've been here a lot lately, and plan to be here a lot more. (Applause.)
President Bush has his opponent in this campaign, and now I have mine. (Laughter.) I called Senator Edwards to welcome him to the race the other day, and we had a fine conversation, very friendly. Somebody said to me, of course, that Senator Edwards got picked for his good looks and charm. And I said, "How do you think I got this job?" (Laughter and applause.)
It's good to be on the Medical College of Ohio, I guess, in the 40th anniversary year. It's a privilege to bring greetings to each and every one of you from our President, George W. Bush. (Applause.)
The President and I are grateful for our supporters all across Ohio. We're working hard in Ohio. I think the signs are good. And come November, with your help, I'm confident that Ohio is going to be part of a nationwide victory for the Bush-Cheney ticket. (Applause.)
We're looking forward to a spirited contest this fall. And when you talk to your friends and neighbors about the campaign, ask them to think about all that has happened since George W. Bush was elected President of the United States. These last three-and-a-half years have brought some serious challenges to our country. And we're meeting those, every one of them, with strength and resolve. Today, the American people can be confident of a brighter future; of a stronger economy; and a nation that is more secure, because of the character and the leadership of our President, George W. Bush. (Applause.)
The President has taken decisive leadership to defend the American people against the dangers of this new era. In the 34 months since our nation was attacked, America has led a global campaign, hunting down the terrorists where they plot and plan, so that we do not face them with armies of firefighters, police, and medical personnel on the streets of our own cities. (Applause.) In Afghanistan, we removed the brutal Taliban from power and destroyed the camps where terrorists trained to kill Americans. In Iraq, America and our allies rid the Iraqi people of a murderous dictator, and rid the world of a gathering threat to our peace and security. By liberating both these nations, we replaced breeding grounds for terrorism with emerging democracies, and we have made the American people more secure. (Applause.)
We've also overcome serious challenges to our economy. When the President and I took office, the stock market was declining, and the economy was sliding toward recession. Then, on 9/11, terrorists struck our nation and shook our economy once again. We faced a basic decision -- to leave more money with families and businesses, or to take more of your tax dollars for the federal government. President Bush made his choice. He proposed and delivered tax relief -- not once, not twice, but three times. (Applause.)
We have much yet to do in our work on making this nation a stronger, safer, better place for all who call it home. And today, I want to discuss some of the vital reforms we need to improve the health care system in the United States.
America's system of private medicine is producing remarkable results, helping to improve lives here at home and to extend help to patients from around the world. We are on the leading edge of medical research and innovation. Yet we still face serious obstacles. We believe too many citizens go without reliable access to medical care, so President Bush has proposed refundable tax credits to allow low-income Americans to buy health care coverage, regardless of what their employers provide. Too many patients lack a primary care provider, and are left to seek routine services in emergency rooms. That drains critical resources at our hospitals. It delays treatment for those who need vital care. So President Bush has opened or expanded more than 600 community health centers, which provide checkups, immunizations, and other basic care to patients needing treatment.
For many Americans, the rising costs of health care are an overwhelming concern, and President Bush has taken serious action to bring costs under control. Our administration worked with Congress to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and already millions of seniors are saving on their monthly drug bills. We passed tax-free health savings accounts, which are making health coverage more affordable for many families. And we have increased funding for health care information technology, so that we can eliminate needless expenses and medical errors by creating computerized medical records for most Americans over the next decade.
All of these steps are improving both the quality of care and access to care for American families. Health care remains expensive, and costs rise for many reasons. Research and new treatments can be very costly. But some health care costs that are passed on to patients are entirely needless. This problem doesn't start in the waiting room. It doesn't start in the operating room. This problem starts in the courtroom. Many lawsuits filed against doctors have no merit. Even though they are baseless, these junk lawsuits are expensive to fight, and many doctors -- encouraged by their insurance companies -- choose to settle out of court.
The picture has become clear across the country: huge payoffs for personal injury trial lawyers; smaller shares of compensation for those who have been wronged; and massive increases in medical liability insurance premiums, for doctors across the country. Our medical liability litigation system is broken. (Applause.)
This problem has been building for years, but we have now reached a crisis level. You've seen it here in Ohio. Physicians in this state saw their insurance premiums rise by an average of 30 percent last year alone. Specialists have been hit even harder. Premiums for many obstetricians in Ohio have more than doubled over the past year.
If malpractice premiums continue to rise at their current rate, a third of Ohio's physicians say they will close their practices within two years. The Columbus Dispatch reported the story of an obstetrician in Akron who is considering closing his practice this year. This physician has been delivering babies for two decades without a single malpractice judgment against him. Yet his insurance premium has increased by almost 400 percent in the last two years alone. He was quoted as saying: "Two dozen OB/GYNs in my area have closed their practices in the past two years. If my sad prediction is correct, after next year, there will be none left."
We're seeing similar losses all over the country. According to news reports about my home state of Wyoming, 50 physicians closed or curtailed their practices last year alone. In my hometown of Casper, more than a dozen doctors left. A surgeon from the city of Torrington described to a reporter how hard it is getting to recruit new physicians into Wyoming. He said, we tell them, okay, your malpractice premium is going to be $80,000 dollars, and you need to pay that in cash, up front. They just look at us like we're nuts.
Nationwide, 20 percent of hospitals have been forced to cut back on critical services, such as delivering babies, cardiovascular surgery, and orthopedic surgery. In many states, trauma care physicians are dropping emergency room duty -- one of the most frequent targets of malpractice claims -- and leaving patients with urgent medical needs to lose precious time waiting for urgent care. Doctors of all specialties are reverting to defensive medicine, ordering unnecessary procedures and expensive tests to guard against any potential malpractice complaint.
Patients end up paying for this defensive medicine, and so do the taxpayers. Efforts by physicians to avoid medical liability claims cost the federal government billions of dollars every year. Fear of frivolous medical lawsuits drives up the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' health care, and other government health benefits. And it has a bad effect on the small business sector, as well. I have met with small business owners all across the country, including here in Ohio. They all want to provide good health benefits to employees, but some won't do it because of the costs involved, or because of the potentially huge costs of being sued. They know junk lawsuits could destroy their business and put people out of work.
Medical liability litigation is a serious problem in almost every state in the land, and it's not getting any better. Frivolous lawsuits are clogging the courts, and delaying justice for those with real problems. Some states have done their best to confront the crisis on their own. Here in Ohio, just weeks ago, Governor Bob Taft and the state legislature passed sound medical liability reforms. Yet individual states can only do so much.
The health care system across America remains dangerously unbalanced. It makes no sense for a general surgeon in Ohio to pay up to $75,000 a year in insurance premiums, while a general surgeon with the same responsibilities could pay $14,000 dollars a year next-door in Indiana. The federal government has a responsibility to act when justice is clearly being undermined and unfair practices are damaging our national economy. Medical litigation abuse is a national problem, and it needs a national solution. (Applause.)
The time for action is now. We must protect the rights of those with real grievances, and we have to fix the medical liability problem at its source -- the frivolous lawsuits that are filed solely with the hope of winning massive verdicts. That is why President Bush has set forth some responsible, practical reforms to put doctors and patients back in charge of health care in America. (Applause.)
The President and I strongly support the rights of all Americans to bring legitimate claims before a court. Tragically, some patients are victims of terrible medical errors, and there is no doubt that they deserve to collect damages to fully cover their injuries, recovery, rehabilitation, and loss of income. But there has to be a common sense limit on the punitive and non-economic damages plaintiffs can collect, otherwise insurance premiums and patient costs will continue spiraling out of control. So the President has proposed a reasonable federal cap of $250,000 on non-economic damage awards, to ensure that victims receive justice, and that other Americans can get access to the affordable health care they need.
We also need reform in joint and several liability. Under the current system, doctors sometimes pay for mistakes they themselves didn't even make. That is unfair. When more than one person is responsible for a patient's injuries, we need to assign blame fairly, and divide the payment of damages accordingly. Doctors should be held accountable for any harm they cause, but not for damages inflicted by someone else. (Applause.)
Finally, we need to let doctors and hospitals work to address medical errors without fearing that their efforts will be used against them one day. Some doctors believe they cannot share important information with their colleagues on best clinical practices, because they fear personal injury trial lawyers might use that information against them in court. That's not right. We should not be expecting doctors to practice law, and we should not get the personal injury trial lawyers -- and we should get the personal injury trial lawyers out of the practice of medicine. (Applause.)
The President's proposals are sound, sensible reforms. They deal with the challenges at hand and strengthen our world-class health care system. They have the support of reliable, nonpartisan organizations like the American Medical Association. And we are confident our reforms will work, because we have already seen them succeed. In California, for example, non-economic damages have been capped at $250,000 since 1975. In that state, insurance premiums are now one-half to one-third lower than premiums in states without similar caps. Not only is this law reducing the cost of care, it is also realigning the system's priorities. Personal injury trial lawyers take home a smaller percentage of malpractice verdicts than they did before the reforms, so injured patients now take home a greater share of the compensation that is awarded.
We've worked hard to pass medical liability reform in Congress. The House has passed good legislation each of the past two years, but both times the Senate failed to act. This problem is too serious to let the Senate off the hook once again. For the sake of our doctors, and the patients they serve, we need medical liability reform now. (Applause.)
The President's opponent, Senator Kerry, of Massachusetts, takes a different view of the medical liability crisis. Over his years in the Senate, he's been a consistent opponent of reforms to help doctors, patients, and families control the rising health care costs associated with medical liability. Senator Kerry has opposed or blocked medical liability reform no fewer than 10 times, including twice in the last three years.
Senator Kerry has also declined to support even the most common sense reforms. Let me give you an example. Twice this year, the Senate considered legislation to enact medical liability reform specifically designed for the specialty areas where the situation is the most severe -- OB/GYN and trauma services. There was a clear choice at hand: whether to side with patients and their doctors who save lives and deliver babies, or with the personal injury trial lawyers who take those doctors to court. President Bush made his choice, and strongly supported these reforms. Senator Kerry made his choice, as well. He didn't even show up to vote on either one of those bills.
Senator Kerry's running mate is a trial lawyer who is very experienced at suing doctors. And together they are two of the most consistent opponents of medical liability reform in the United States Senate. Based on their record, there is little doubt that a Kerry-Edwards administration would have no interest in liability reform. Simply stated, 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 their patients. (Applause.)
That is one of the crucial differences in this campaign, and the President and I are going to make our position very clear to the voters. We come at this issue with a practical point of view, which we believe is shared by the vast majority of Americans. All of us understand that when we are sick, or the health of our loved ones is in question, we don't need a lawyer. We need the experienced, trusted doctors that we've known and relied on for years. (Applause.) Whether your son or daughter needs an emergency operation, or your wife is in labor, or your mom or dad has to see an experienced cardiologist, you want to be able to call on qualified, caring doctors. And runaway litigation is driving doctors away from their patients when their patients need them most.
The medical liability crisis is threatening the future of medicine in our country, and government has a duty to act. It is time for Congress to pass medical liability reform according to the sound principles the President has set forth. Working together, we will protect the relationship between doctors and their patients. We will preserve the rights of patients who are hurt by doctors, or who practice bad medicine. And by our actions, we will bring doctors back to their communities, so they can focus on what's best for their patients.
Once again, let me thank you all for being here today. America's medical professionals are the single greatest strength of our health care system. They have devoted their lives to help -- the high calling of others, and the nation is grateful to each and every one of them.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 5:30 P.M. EDT