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Trial Lawyers in Fight Over Health Care Tort Reform

The trial lawyers’ lobby, worried that tort reform could become a bargaining chip in the health care debate, is lashing out this week against efforts to include medical malpractice limits in health care reform bills.

Linda Lipsen, the top lobbyist for the American Association for Justice, said the group grew concerned over the August recess as the rhetoric heated up and Members flirted with possible bipartisan compromises that could include tort reforms.

Republican Members still at the negotiating table, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), have said tort reform should be part of the health care overhaul. In addition, former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), a one-time presidential candidate, has also endorsed tort reform as a way of getting more GOP support for universal health care coverage.

Perhaps of even more concern for the trial bar, some health care lobbyists say they wouldn’t be surprised if President Barack Obama brings up the issue during his address to Congress on Wednesday. In a speech to the American Medical Association in June, Obama put the AAJ on defense when he referred to doctors ordering expensive tests as part of “defensive medicine— for fear of lawsuits.

“As they’re discussing the health care bill, we do not think that patients’ rights should be eliminated,— Lipsen said.

The AAJ is planning a conference call with reporters Wednesday. Late last week, the group released talking points to reporters to debunk the idea that medical malpractice reforms would help lower health care costs.

“Several of the Republicans involved in the health care debate have put this on the table, like this is going to reduce health care costs,— Lipsen said. “It’s very clear to me, and to anyone that’s really looked at this, that this will have nothing to do with costs.—

But tort reform advocates and key medical industry stakeholders, such as doctors and insurers, don’t agree.

“Medical liability reform has to be a part of the plan to make health care affordable and make the system sustainable,— said Mike Tuffin, executive vice president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a group whose members found themselves under attack from Democrats during the recess. “The current system has created an epidemic of defensive medicine. It is raising the costs for patients and putting doctors and nurses out of practice in some cases.—

Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association said it’s a matter of simple “common sense— that medical malpractice lawsuits add to the cost of the nation’s health care bills. He said that, until recently, the trial bar, which has donated generously to the Democratic Party, had maintained a low profile in the health care debate.

“They have now apparently changed that strategy,— McKinney said. “Enough worry has been raised amongst the trial lawyers and the Democrats they reward so handsomely with campaign donations. … You’ve got Democrats talking about [tort reform], and you’ve got doctors rising up about it and Joe and Josephine American asking common-sense questions at town halls.—

McKinney wrote a press release about a town hall in late August hosted by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). Former Vermont Gov. and ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a doctor, participated as a special guest, McKinney said.

When Dean was asked why tort reform was not a key component of health reform, McKinney quoted Dean as saying, “The reason tort reform is not in the [health care] bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on. And that’s the plain and simple truth.—

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