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To fix malpractice law, look at Pennsy reforms

July 02, 2004

After Maryland's largest medical malpractice insurer filed for a 41 percent rate increase, Gov. Robert Ehrlich called on state lawmakers to hold a special session to pass a reform bill.

The problem is that the only solution advanced so far is that taxpayers be tapped to cover increased insurance costs, an idea Ehrlich rejects. Despite his assertion that a bill could be passed in one day, it's clear that it will take much longer, if only because the two sides are so divided.

On one side are the state's physicians, who believe that the culprit is trial lawyers who seek outrageous awards for those who've allegedly been injured by health-care providers' mistakes.

On the other are the trial lawyers, who say that if doctors would do a better job of policing their own ranks, there would be fewer mistakes made - and fewer lawsuits.

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It's clear that any reform bill would have to have elements of each side's proposals to forge a compromise that both sides could accept.

It makes sense to look at what other states have done, including nearby Pennsylvania. According to the state's Office of Health Care Reform, in 2002-03, that state's legislature passed a comprehensive reform bill.

The law creates a Patient Safety Authority to collect and analyze "serious patient safety events ..." The authority would work with the state Department of Health to correct whatever problem led to the event.

Other parts of the bill capped punitive damages, beefed up standards as to who can testify as an expert witnesses and provided for installment payments of awards of more than $100,000.

The legislation is much more complicated that space allows us to describe here. All parts of it may not be suitable for Maryland. But it would provide a starting point for discussions, since a great deal of research was done prior to its passage.

Whatever bill is passed will increase the public's costs, but that would be true if no bill is passed. As the governor said, with no bill, there's no guarantee that a pregnant woman's obstetrician will be in practice when it's time to deliver.

So yes, hold a special session, but to save time, start with the work that's already been done by other states.

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