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White House to offer grants aimed at curbing medical malpractice suits

Republicans and other critics deem the proposal for $25 million in grants an empty gesture. Some say the sum is too small to make a difference.

September 18, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — The White House rolled out a modest program Thursday examining ways to discourage frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits, but what was meant as a bipartisan overture was quickly denounced by Republicans and business and consumer groups as an empty gesture.

The Obama administration said that it would offer $25 million in grants to identify practices that would reduce medical errors, scale back malpractice insurance premiums and spare doctors from nuisance litigation.

Traditionally, Democrats have opposed changes in malpractice law, protecting the interests of trial lawyers who are a major source of fundraising support. Republicans, for their part, have long sought changes in litigation practices so that employers are not hit with excessive judgments.

At a rally on the University of Maryland campus, President Obama clearly wanted Republicans to take notice.

"Now, some of my Republican colleagues have also supported reforming our medical malpractice laws as a way to cut down healthcare costs," the president said. "I don't think this is a silver bullet, but I want to explore the idea. So today I directed my secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward with programs that will help us put patient safety first while allowing doctors to focus on practicing medicine instead of defending against lawsuits."

The early verdict suggested that Obama had gained little ground, with opposition coming from all points.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he wasn't satisfied that the healthcare legislation moving through the Senate does "enough to get rid of junk lawsuits on doctors and hospitals."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests, said the amount of money involved is too small to make a difference: "Studies have shown that meaningful medical malpractice reform can save from $120 billion to as much as $500 billion over a decade. But a small medical liability grant program will not be effective."

Public interest groups said that if the intent is to woo Republicans, Obama is wasting time. They predicted that the medical malpractice initiative would neither pick up Republican votes nor succeed in reining in healthcare costs.

"It's a completely unsuccessful strategy," said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy, a national consumer rights group.

"The Republican vote will never be there, and this is not going to change that. It's simply risking the rights of patients, and that's a terrible political risk to take."

Briefing reporters at the White House, administration officials were asked why they were investing such a relatively small sum in the program, rather than making medical malpractice a cornerstone of the proposed healthcare legislation.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama didn't want to delay.

The president preferred to act now as opposed to "waiting for a political football to get tossed around the aisles of Congress," Gibbs said.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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