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Surgeons renew threat

Md. bid to slow insurance price

Md. bid to slow insurance price

October 28, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Word that Maryland's Senate president criticized Gov. Robert Ehrlich's medical malpractice plan on Tuesday recharged talk by some Washington County surgeons who had threatened to stop performing nonemergency surgeries on Nov. 15 if a General Assembly special session wasn't held to discuss rising malpractice insurance costs.

"If they don't get a special session, then I think it'll probably happen," Dr. Dona Hobart, a Washington County general surgeon, said in an interview Wednesday. "It's basically now or never."

"It's a matter of days to weeks, not weeks to months," said Washington County surgeon Dr. Frank Collins.

The comments came a day after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called Ehrlich's malpractice plan "a work of fiction."

Miller said that based on the governor's proposal, he sees no chance for doing anything in a special session in November or December to give doctors relief from the 33 percent premium hike that will be due by the end of the year, The Associated Press reported.

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Ehrlich said he was willing to negotiate changes to his plan and would seek a meeting with Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch before the end of the week, AP reported. Neither the governor nor the speaker ruled out a special session, according to AP.

Included in Ehrlich's plan are changes in the law that would make it harder to bring lawsuits and reduce the cost of malpractice settlements, including a stricter limit on payment of noneconomic damages often referred to as pain and suffering, the AP reported.

The governor also proposed limiting fees paid to lawyers through malpractice judgments, the AP reported.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, said Wednesday it was too early to tell whether a special session would be held.

She said unless Ehrlich, Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch agree on a malpractice plan, "there'd be no point in a special session."

Ehrlich plans to meet with Miller and Busch this week or early next week to discuss his medical malpractice plan, DeLeaver said.

Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, said Wednesday that he was "mildly optimistic" a special session would be held.

"I really am hopeful that cooler heads are going to prevail on this and get this ... issue out of the way," Munson said.

If it appears unlikely that a special session will be held, several Washington County surgeons said they expect doctors will stop performing nonemergency surgeries, such as breast biopsies, colonoscopies, and hernia and gall bladder procedures, on Nov. 15.

"If we don't walk out, I'm not too optimistic that a special session will be held," said Neil O'Malley, a Washington County neurosurgeon. "If we don't see any movement ... we're planning on shutting down, except for emergency (surgeries)."

Collins said he would give up his practice and take up political activism in the field.

"If there's not reform, I will leave," Collins said. "I won't be here. I'm leaving, and that's the end of it."

Dr. Jay Greenberg, a Hagerstown obstetrician-gynecologist, said the combined premium for three doctors in his practice is $105,000. He has said it rose from $74,000 two years ago to $80,000 last year.

"Who can afford "$105,000?" Greenberg asked.

"If there is not a special session, you're going to find a lot of doctors who are going to retire early, give up obstetrics and leave the state," Greenberg said.

According to an Oct. 21 letter from The Doctors Co. to Greenberg, malpractice insurance costs would rise by 40.8 percent next year under a proposal the company sent to the Maryland Insurance Administration.

If doctors stop the nonemergency surgeries or choose to leave the field, patients will end up waiting longer to receive medical care, the surgeons said.

"The system has grown out of control for so long that drastic measures are needed," Hobart said. "It has to be changed now, or we're not going to have doctors."

Hobart said the malpractice crisis has affected the way doctors do business.

"We're forced to practice in a way that we have to look at every patient as a booby trap," Hobart said.

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