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Lawmakers are optimistic after talks on malpractice

October 16, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Local lawmakers were optimistic that a meeting between Gov. Robert Ehrlich and legislative leaders on Thursday would lead to a solution to the state's medical malpractice crisis.

Spiraling costs for malpractice insurance have prompted physicians throughout the state to threaten to curb or eliminate services, particularly in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery. The state's dominant insurer, Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, recently won approval for a 33 percent increase in premium charges.

While the governor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have been at odds over possible remedies, Thursday's meeting, which also included House Speaker Michael Busch, appeared to result in an agreement to compromise, according to Washington County Delegation Chairman Christopher Shank, R-Washington.

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"I don't think there's anything specific yet," Shank said, but he believed an eventual agreement would include both a short-term action in the form of a stop-loss fund to subsidize insurance premiums, which Miller wants, and the more comprehensive reforms Ehrlich has been pushing.

"Just reading between the lines, my belief is that Miller realizes the need for some kind of comprehensive tort reform," Shank said. "You can't just throw money at it."

Whether those reforms will include caps on awards in malpractice suits or take some other form remains to be seen, Shank said.

"But there seems to be a willingness on all three sides to deal with it," he said.

Shank has advocated reforms sought by a group of local doctors who are pushing for such caps, as well as regulations for expert witnesses in malpractice cases, "Good Samaritan" immunity for physicians and special courts for health care.

Such details would have to be worked out by legislative committees before the General Assembly could convene a special session to deal with the issue, Shank said.

Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, who serves on the house Health and Government Operations Committee, noted a number of possible solutions have been suggested, including a premium tax on HMOs that could generate a projected $50 million to pay for a stop-loss fund. "And of course, there's the endless discussions on lowering caps and freezing the premiums" for malpractice insurance, he said.

"What I'm pushing for is a three-point approach that would include an insurance reform piece, a tort reform piece and a fund piece," Donoghue said.

"I support long-term reforms with caps," said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany. "But I'm open to whatever works.

"Just today, I ran into three doctors in one place and all three were very adamant about the fact that something had to be done," Myers said. He said he would support "only as a last resort" any proposal to call a special session to act on a stop-loss fund as a short-term solution while saving complex reforms for the regular legislative session, which begins in January.

"Why not just get it done?" Myers said.

One legislator, however, doubted whether any agreement could be reached before January.

"I don't believe the will is there for comprehensive reform," said Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Washington/Frederick. Miller is a trial lawyer, and Mooney said he is skeptical that the Senate president is serious about reforming malpractice laws. And Mooney said he is "not at all supportive" of Miller's proposal for a stop-loss fund.

"Doctors are so desperate right now, their adversaries are offering them fools' gold," Mooney said.

"I don't think there will be a special session the agreement's not there," Mooney said. But he added that he would support a special session for Ehrlich's reforms, which were rejected by the legislature last year.

The governor has been lobbying hard for reforms. Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington/Allegany, said lawmakers had received a memo called "Briefing Points on the Medical Malpractice Crisis" that outlines Ehrlich's views on the issue.

"During the past legislative session, Ehrlich offered a reasonable and measured legislative solution to the crisis," the memo claims. "That solution, which included caps on damages awarded to plaintiffs, was killed by partisan legislators."

Munson has said he supports reforms similar to a California law on which Ehrlich's bill was based.

"The California model seems to work," Munson said. "Doctors have to have confidence as they go about their careers."

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