Cheney, Edwards Spar Over Medical Liability Issue During VP Debate

October 6, 2004

Around and around they went.

For some 90 minutes, Vice President Dick Cheney and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards debated and most often, disagreed on the issues, during the first and only Vice Presidential debate Tuesday evening in Cleveland.

Putting a trial lawyer on the ticket, the issue of medical liability, and bringing affordable healthcare insurance to all Americans were among the topics discussed. Below are excerpts from the discussion on some of the medical issues.

Moderator: Okay, then we’ll move on to the next question. This one is for you, Mr. Vice President. President Bush has derided John Kerry for putting a trial lawyer on the ticket. You, yourself, have said that lawsuits are partly to blame for higher medical costs. Are you willing to say that John Edwards, sitting here, has been part of the problem? (Laughter.)

Vice President Cheney: Well, Gwen —

Moderator: Mr. Vice President. (Laughter.)

Cheney: I — first of all, I’m not familiar with his cases. My concern is specifically with what’s happened to our medical care system because of rising malpractice insurance rates, because we’ve failed to adequately reform our medical liability structure.

I was in New Mexico the other day. I met with a group of OB/GYN docs. And they were deeply concerned because they were fearful that there would be another increase in malpractice insurance rates as a result of what they believe are frivolous lawsuits, and that that would put them out of business.

One doctor indicated that her rates have gone up so much that she’s now to the point where she is screening patients. She won’t take high-risk patients anymore because of the danger that that will generate a lawsuit, and a lawsuit will put her out of business. This has had a devastating impact on a lot of communities. My home state of Wyoming, we’ve lost the top insurer, malpractice insurance in the state. The rates for a general practitioner have gone from $40,000 a year to $100,000 a year for an insurance policy. We think this has a devastating impact on the quality of health care. As I say, high- risk patients don’t get covered anymore. We’ve lost one out of 11 OB/GYN practitioners in the country. We think it can be fixed, needs to be fixed.

Now, specifically, what we need to do is cap non-economic damages, and we also think you need to limit the awards that the trial attorneys take out of all of this. Over 50 percent of the settlements go to attorneys and for administrative overhead.

We passed medical liability reform through the House of Representatives. It has been blocked in the Senate. Senator Kerry has voted 10 times against medical liability reform, and I don’t believe Senator Edwards supports it either — not the kind that would be meaningful.

Moderator: Senator Edwards?

Senator Edwards: Yes. Well, let me say, first of all, I’m proud of the work I did on behalf of kids and families against big insurance companies, big drug companies, and big HMOs. We do have too many lawsuits, and the reality is there’s something that we can do about it. John Kerry and I have a plan to do something about it. We want to put more responsibility on the lawyers to require before a case of malpractice, which the Vice President just spoke about, have the case reviewed by independent experts who determine the case is serious and meritorious before it can be filed; hold the lawyers responsible for that, to certify that, and hold the lawyer financially responsible if they don’t do it; have a three strikes and you’re out rule so that a lawyer who files three of these cases without meeting this requirement loses their right to file these cases.

That way we keep the cases out of the system that don’t belong in the system. They talk about frivolous cases — we believe cases that don’t belong in the system should never be in the system. But we don’t believe that we should take away the rights of people like Valerie Lakey, who is a young girl who I represented, five years old, severely injured for life on a defective swimming pool drain cover. It turns out the company knew of 12 other children who had either been killed or severely injured by the same problem. They hid it. They didn’t tell anybody. They could fixed it with a two-cent screw. That’s wrong. John Kerry and I are always going to stand with the Valerie Lakeys of the world, and not with the insurance companies.

Moderator: Senator Edwards, new question to you, same topic. Do you feel personally attacked when Vice President Cheney talks about liability reform and tort reform, and the President talks about having a trial lawyer on the ticket?

Edwards: Am I personally attacked? (Laughter.) I think — I think the truth is that what they’re doing is talking about an issue that really doesn’t have a great deal with what’s happening with medical costs in this country, which I think is a very serious issue. And I will be the first to say what the Vice President described a few minutes ago — problems with malpractice claims — that’s true, it’s real, it’s very real. I mean, what doctors talk about is very serious and they’re getting squeezed from both sides, because they have trouble getting reimbursed, first of all, for the care that they provide –from the government or from health care provider — I mean health care companies. And on the flip side, their malpractice costs are going up. That’s very real, which is why we have proposed a plan to keep cases out of the system that don’t belong there.

But it’s very important to put this in context. Because in context, everything they’re proposing — according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office — amounts to about half of one percent of health care costs in this country — half of one percent.

We have double digit inflation in health care costs. We’ve seen the largest rise in medical costs in the last four years in the country’s history: $3,500 nationally. And nobody who’s watching this debate needs me to explain this to them, they know it. Medicare premium is up 17 percent on their watch. Again, largest increase in Medicare premiums in the history of Medicare. We think — we have a plan to keep cases that don’t belong in the system out. But we also do what they haven’t done. Five million Americans have lost their health care coverage; medical costs skyrocketing. We have a serious health care plan to bring down costs for everybody, to cover millions more Americans, and to actually stand up to drug companies and insurance companies, which this administration has been unwilling to do.

Moderator: Mr. Vice President.

Cheney: Yes, Gwen, we think lawsuit abuse is a serious problem in this country; we think we badly need tort reform. I was in Minnesota the other day, where I visited an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s a great success story. This is a company that started 20 years ago with nothing; today, they’re the second leading producer of piston-driven aircraft in the country. He told me that if it weren’t for the increased cost of his liability insurance — in this case, product liability — he could hire 200 more people in his factory. We’ve built into the system enormous costs as a result of our practice with respect to litigation. We have to find ways to get a handle on it.

You mentioned Medicare up 17 percent, somehow that that was something we caused. No. The 17 percent increase in Medicare premiums was the direct result of the statute adopted in 1997. John Kerry voted for it. It establishes a formula for Part(B of Medicare that says, in effect, it has to cover 25 percent of the cost of the program. And the reason the money had to go in to the trust fund was to make certain that we could cover those eligible for benefits.

While you were in private practice in law, and as a senator, you had a advantage of a special tax loophole, subchapter-S corporation, which you set up so you could avoid paying $600,000 in Medicare taxes that would have gone into the fund. And it’s those kinds of loopholes that necessitate a premium increase under the law that was enacted in 1997, supported by John Kerry.

Moderator: You have 30 seconds to respond.

Edwards: Well, first of all, I’ve paid all the taxes that I owe. When the Vice President was CEO of Halliburton, they took care of — took advantage of every off-shore loophole available. They had multiple offshore companies that were avoiding taxes.

Those are the kind of things we ought to be closed — that ought to be closed. They ought to be closed for anybody. They ought to be closed whether they’re personal and they ought to be closed whether they apply to a corporation. But the reality is, health care costs are going up every day for the American people, and I hope we’re going to get a chance to talk more about health care.

Moderator: Thirty seconds, Mr. Vice President.

Cheney: We’ve done a lot to reduce the costs of health care. The Medicare and drug benefit that we’ll be providing to seniors beginning in ’06 will provide upwards of $1,300 a year to help them buy prescription drugs. The drugs savings, drug discount card that’s now available saves an estimated 15 to 30 percent off the cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens.

So we’re moving in as many areas as we can to make certain we hold down or reduce health care costs.

Editor’s note: The next presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is set for Friday, Oct. 8 in St. Louis.

Latest Comments

  • October 11, 2004 at 9:30 am
    Matt says:
    That would be a great Idea! It would eliminate the whole lottery trial system where you can get rich quick by suing
  • October 8, 2004 at 4:52 am
    craig says:
    My theory is that punitive damage awards are meant to punish the defendant rather than to reward the plaintiff. As such, punitive damages should be paid to the jurisdiction in... read more
  • October 8, 2004 at 2:48 am
    Scared to get Old says:
    Gwen, We are all aging and with the huge deficits Bush is building with his tax breaks for the rich (would the poor Doctors fall in that category of making more than $200k/yea... read more
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