Sen. Miller, other leaders need push on malpractice

December 02, 2004

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller this week said malpractice law reform is difficult, but can be done, provided all cooperate and put aside party politics.

Miller spoke on Tuesday at a luncheon hosted by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

The man widely perceived as the champion of the state's trial lawyers may not have convinced the many doctors who attended that he is on their side, but he gave them another focus for their anger - Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

The legislative proponents of reform have a two-pronged strategy - create a "stop loss" fund that will freeze malpractice-insurance premiums, then take the time to work on more comprehensive reforms.

Miller's proposed source for the fund is a 2 percent tax on health-maintenance organizations. Miller said Ehrlich opposes such a tax because the governor is playing to his base, the "no new taxes" Republicans.


Instead, Miller said, Ehrlich proposes to take it out of the state's general fund. The problem with that, Miller said, is that the general fund is already strained because of the legislature's promise to fund the educational recommendations of the Thornton Commission.

Miller said that pressure on the general fund would be eased by the legalization of slot machines.

At the same time, Miller said, the state needs to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate because doctors are getting the same amount to do many procedures as they did 20 years ago.

How will the governor respond? Miller said Ehrlich has his own commission, which recently issued 38 new proposals. Like Miller's proposals, they deserve a full debate, something we look forward to.

But the outline of Miller's plan makes much sense. The governor will have to agree on revenues, the trial lawyers on tort reform and the physicians on new measures to guarantee patient safety, he said.

We continue to believe, given the players, that this bill (or package of bills) will not be worked out easily or soon. We suggest the following compromise:

Enact the 2 percent tax on HMOs, but with wording in the legislation stating it would expire when the malpractice package is passed. That would give HMOs a reason to be involved in the debate and to press for a timely solution.

It would also give the governor political cover by making the tax a temporary, emergency measure, which, when coupled with tort reform, would be a plus for him.

To our readers, we say: Don't stop writing the governor and legislative leaders and pressing for a solution. On Tuesday, Miller was not the ogre many expected. He may have adopted the conciliatory tone he did because there is an organized movement to bring about change.

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