Tort Reform a Key Issue in Health Care Debate

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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will meet Thursday with bipartisan leaders in Congress to discuss health care. The goal is to find common ground and that's renewed the debate over medical lawsuits.

From the beginning, Republicans have argued tort reform must be included in healthcare reform. Such reform would mean changes to the way doctors can be sued for medical malpractice.

"We've got to be able to give them a little bit of a backstop on the liability end," Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said.

Just across the Potomac in Virginia, Dr. Russell Libby is a practicing pediatrician. He says the problem is simple.

"The fact is that when you anticipate the possibility of a lawsuit sometimes you will do things that you otherwise would clinically be necessary," Libby said.

It is called defensive medicine, which is when doctors order expensive, time consuming and sometimes risky tests they do not feel are necessary in an effort to cover themselves from being sued for malpractice.

Based on previous studies, Libby estimates the practice costs about $2,000 per family of four.

To cut costs, supporters of tort reform would like to limit the amount of money patients can receive from malpractice lawsuits. But opponents, including Obama, say malpractice victims have a right to sue for damages.

Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., says medical liability reform is legitimate, but argues it is not the fix Republicans make it out to be.

"It is not a determinant of ultimately what is going to happen to our healthcare system," Snyder said. "It will not solve all of our problems at all."

There are also political considerations. Trial lawyers, who contribute heavily to Democrats, have lobbied against tort reform.

But Libby said the absence of tort reform in healthcare legislation will undermine confidence in Washington among medical professionals.

"It needs to be part of healthcare reform," Libby said.

Obama released his own healthcare bill this week that is similar to the Senate bill passed last year and does not include tort reform. His Thursday meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders will be televised.

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