Bush says tort reform needed, cites Rolling Fork M.D.’s exit

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 8, 2002

[08/08/02]MADISON Sharkey County is losing its only pediatrician to rising liability costs in the state, President Bush said here Wednesday in singling out Dr. Kurt Kooyer as an example of why civil-justice reform is needed.

Kooyer, 39, is leaving his work at the Cary Christian Center and moving to North Dakota. His wife, a physician in Vicksburg, will be leaving, too.

Kooyer was one of about 10 people who met with the president during a scheduled 35-minute roundtable discussion, which preceded a speech of about 43 minutes before a crowd of about 2,000 in the Madison Central High School gym.

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The events were part of Bush’s scheduled four-hour stop in the state, which included later $1,000-per-plate fund-raising luncheon for District 3 U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, who introduced Bush, and a separate $25,000 per ticket reception and fund-raising event for the Mississippi Republican Party.

Pickering is facing current District 4 U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, in the race for the newly redrawn District 3. The districts represented by Pickering and Shows were consolidated as the state lost one of its five House seats after the 2000 Census.

Shows attended Bush’s speech, as did both of the state’s U.S. senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, District 1 U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, former U.S. Rep. Sonny Montgomery and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck. Bush expressed appreciation for his welcome at the Jackson airport by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Bush said the “lawsuit industry,” with out-of-control jury awards, is hurting the state and the country.

“You’ve got too many of your doctors that are being forced to settle cases for large amounts of money even when they haven’t committed an error,” Bush said. “And that’s not right.”

Rising liability costs cause the cost of medicine to go up for all people, he said.

“You may not think so, but it’s a hidden cost of your health-care bill,” he said.

“(Kooyer) and his wife went to Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta,” Bush said. “They did because, as he said, he felt a Christian calling to care for children, children who need help.”

Kooyer did not want to leave the state but was doing so because of rising liability-insurance premiums and what he sees as the increasing risk of being sued, Bush said. Kooyer was unavailable after meeting with the president.

In a response after the speech, David Baria, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said Bush was wrong to link damage caps and insurance premiums. Doctors face higher costs for liability policies in states where there are caps, Baria said.

“Caps don’t help anybody except corporations and insurance companies,” Baria said. “The tort reformers already know that, but I guess they don’t want to let the facts confuse a good story.”

The Cary Christian Center is largely credited with providing prenatal care that dropped the lower Delta’s infant mortality rate sharply during the early 1990s.

The amount of federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid, estimated to account together for about 18 percent of the $2.1 trillion in spending in the president’s 2003 budget, makes civil-justice reform an important federal as well as state issue, Bush said in calling for ceilings to be applied nationally as they are in most states.

“We cannot have unlimited noneconomic and punitive damages drive health care away from the people,” Bush said, adding that he also supported other federal reforms in the civil-justice system. “It’s time for Congress to act.”

Among other matters the president discussed were his proposal for a Department of Homeland Security and the war on terrorism that has followed the Sept. 11 attacks that killed thousands of U.S. civilians.

“My most important job as president of this country is to protect the homeland,” he said, adding that creation of a single agency would help in enforcing that nation’s borders and in coordinating intelligence-gathering and analysis.

In comments believed to signal that the administration continues to consider a military campaign to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Bush referred to threats from “countries which harbor and develop weapons of mass destruction, countries run by people who poison their own people.”

“We will discuss these threats in real terms,” Bush said. “And I will explore all options and tools at my disposal. Diplomacy, international pressure, perhaps the military.”

Spending on national defense accounts for about 17 percent of the plan in the president’s 2003 budget. He urged the two houses of Congress to quickly resolve their differences on a defense-appropriations bill, with “the biggest increase in defense spending since Ronald Reagan was the president.”

“We owe the military every tool they need and every dollar it takes to win this war,” he said.

Bush also discussed the country’s recent large-scale accounting scandals, one of which has resulted in Mississippi-based WorldCom’s making on July 21 the largest corporate bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. He thanked members of both parties who have passed “the biggest corporate reforms since Franklin Roosevelt was the president,” a law he signed last week.