COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (AP) — President Bush yesterday opened a new drive for caps on medical malpractice awards, contending the limits would lower health care costs. Opponents said such ceilings would merely shield doctors and others who provide poor health care.

“I believe the voters made their position clear on Election Day on medical liability reform,” Bush said, citing his re-election as evidence of support for a proposal that has passed the House but failed in the Senate.

The renewed battle revived a partisan debate about whether Bush’s victory in November gave him a second — term mandate to push his big — ticket items through Congress.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) criticized Bush’s medical malpractice proposal as well as the president’s claim of having new political capital.

“Barely two months after promising to unify and heal the country after a bitter election, the president’s again pushing for legislation that will further divide it,” Kennedy said.

“The president’s medical malpractice plan is nothing but a shameful shield for drug companies and HMOs who hurt people through negligence,” Kennedy said.

Bush made his case in Madison County, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The county has been called the “judicial hellhole” of the nation by the American Tort Reform Association last year because of a reputation for huge awards won by plaintiffs.

Lawyers in the area say the legal situation has been exaggerated and that large malpractice awards have been scarce.

“The United States Congress needs to pass real medical liability reform this year,” Bush said, slapping his lectern with an open palm to emphasize his point.

Behind him, the White House advance team arrayed audience members in white medical coats. Bush warned of a crisis, but said it could be averted if the Republican-controlled Congress adopts his plan.

“This liability system, I’m telling you, is out of control,” Bush said. While his proposal has stalled in Congress, Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses in the November elections.

The president wants to place a limit of $250,000 on noneconomic damages, or the pain and suffering portions of malpractice awards. Caps on damage awards of varying types have been put in place in 27 states; Bush and his critics disagree on their impact.

Bush would impose no limits on economic losses suffered at the hands of bad doctors.

Bush wants to limit punitive damages to “egregious cases where they are justified” and cap damages to “reasonable amounts,” according to White House documents that did not elaborate.

He would allow malpractice awards to be paid out over time, instead of in a lump sum and limit the time over which such suits could be filed after the claimed malpractice.

“Because the system is so unpredictable, there is a constant risk of being hit by a massive jury award,” Bush said. “It’s a system that’s just not fair. It’s costly for the doctors, it’s costly for small businesses, it’s costly for hospitals, it is really costly for patients.”

According to a recent study Bushsaid that did not identify, “frivolous litigation” has helped push the “the total cost of our tort system to more than $230 billion a year,” he said.


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