Wash. Post failed to address key questions about Bush's campaign to limit lawsuits

Two January 5 Washington Post articles about President Bush's kickoff of a “major campaign” to limit damage awards in medical malpractice and class-action lawsuits explained Bush's reasons for supporting the changes, but failed to address key questions about whether limiting damage awards would actually lower insurance costs, as Bush and other proponents contend.

The Post's lead article on the matter, headlined “Bush to Seek Limits on Lawsuits; Fierce Battle Over Curbs Is Expected” and written by staff writers Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris, explained Bush's visit to Madison County, Illinois, to kick off his campaign:

Bush will focus on medical malpractice cases in the area, contending that they have driven scores of doctors out of business and left residents with no one locally to turn to in times of emergencies.

But the 1,300-word article made no effort to explain to readers whether or not malpractice cases actually are “driving doctors out of business” in meaningful numbers, either in Madison County or nationwide.

Later, the article noted:

In the case of rising malpractice insurance rates, most Democrats acknowledge there is a problem, but one that can be addressed with more limited changes. Bush's proposals, the trial lawyers and consumer groups maintain, would do little to address the problem they say is largely caused by profiteering insurance companies.

But The Post stopped there, presenting the issue as merely a difference of opinion rather than trying to explain who is right and why.

As Media Matters for America has previously noted, many of the factors proponents cite in justifying caps on damage awards in fact have little, if any, effect on overall health care and insurance costs:

  • Malpractice premiums: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has documented the minimal impact that increases in medical malpractice insurance premiums have on overall health care costs. A 2004 CBO report concluded that capping awards at $250,000 for non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits “would basically save only 0.4 percent of the amount that's spent now” on health care. According to the report: "[M]alpractice costs amounted to an estimated $24 billion in 2002, but that figure represents less than 2 percent of overall health care spending. Thus, even a reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent in malpractice costs would lower health care costs by only about 0.4 percent to 0.5 percent, and the likely effect on health insurance premiums would be comparably small."
  • Defensive medicine: As FactCheck.org has noted, claims that “defensive medicine” drives up medical costs -- a principal Bush administration argument for tort reform -- have been dismissed as inconclusive by the General Accounting Office and the CBO. The CBO went further, declaring that there is “no evidence that restrictions on tort liability reduce medical spending.”

But VandeHei and Smith didn't tell their readers any of these things in their article. An accompanying 600-word article by VandeHei, headlined “Malpractice Bill Shields Drugmakers,” also failed to address the question of whether malpractice damage awards or the threat of liability have a significant effect on health care costs -- presumably the most important question Post reporters should try to answer in covering the issue.