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State seeks solution to insurance problem

October 14, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - The state government is scrambling for a solution to the medical malpractice insurance quandary. While everyone agrees a solution must be found, differences abound as to what that solution might be.

"I think this is going to be an imposed solution, from the governor and the leadership down," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington/Allegany.

That's about as far as anyone would go, except to say they anticipate a special session to deal with the issue before the regular General Assembly session begins in January.

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Del. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said Gov. Robert Ehrlich told him last week that a special session was necessary.

The reason? Malpractice insurance premium notices usually go out in November and payments are due in January, before lawmakers could take action. Doctors across the state have threatened to curtail or withhold services unless an answer is found.

The Maryland Insurance Administration recently approved a 33 percent increase for the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, which insures most of the state's doctors. That's on top of a 28 percent increase approved last year.

Medical Mutual cites excessive awards or settlements in malpractice cases.

"We are a physician-owned organization," said Director of Communications John Franklin. "We're just a pass-through device."

He said Medical Mutual is working with government and medical representatives to resolve the crisis.

Ehrlich was to meet today with House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to try to hash out an agreement that legislators could act on in a special session. Ehrlich leaves Saturday on an economic development trip to Singapore and China and won't return until Oct. 23.

Miller proposed a stop-loss fund that would subsidize insurance fees so that physicians wouldn't feel so much of the pinch. Ehrlich and Busch have been cool to that idea.

Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, said such a "quick-fix" wouldn't solve the problem.

"I want to address it long-term," he said.

House leaders trying to find a comprehensive solution are hopeful today's meeting will produce results, he said.

There's been discussion of considering Miller's stop-loss idea in a special session and saving more comprehensive reforms for the regular session. Donoghue said "my fear is that if we throw the dogs a bone, there'll be no incentive for a long-term resolution."

Several ideas offered for reforms center on a 1975 California act that, among other things, capped both awards and legal fees in malpractice cases in that state. A study released this summer by the nonprofit research group RAND Corporation found that in California, defendants' payments in malpractice suits declined by 30 percent as a result, with half the decrease attributed to caps on attorneys' fees. The study did not measure the legislation's impact on malpractice insurance premiums.

Local physicians are lobbying for similar reforms in Maryland, said Karl Riggle, a Hagerstown surgeon recently appointed to the Governor's Task Force on Medical Malpractice and Health Care Access.

More than 50 speakers, including five Washington County physicians, addressed the task force at its meeting Tuesday, Riggle said.

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