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Can special session end state's malpractice crisis?

December 21, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has called a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to deal with medical malpractice issues. It remains to be seen, however, whether the governor and legislative leaders can really agree on a plan.

The after-Christmas session is being called to deal with the issue of medical malpractice insurance.

A deal must be struck before Jan. 1, when premium payments are due to the Medical Mutual Liability Society of Maryland, the physician-owned company that insures most of the state's doctors.

Depending on what their specialities are, doctors could see their premiums go up by 33 to 75 percent. Some have reacted to the increase by scaling back their practices and by declining to do difficult procedures or operate on juveniles.

But some others have withheld payments, which must be made by Jan. 1 or the doctors' insurance will be canceled.

If that happens, it would probably result in the shutdown of the trauma center at Washington County Hospital, because there would not be enough insured physicians to staff it. And, doctors said, the hospital has already rejected the idea of physicians "going bare," or practicing there without insurance.

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So what would settle this matter? Limits on jury awards, for one. The doctors, led by Hagerstown surgeons Karl Riggle and John Caruso, would also like tighter controls on expert witnesses, legal protection for doctors responding in "Good Samaritan" situations and establishment of a health-care court, to evaluate claims before they reach the legal system.

Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have told The Associated Press that they've agreed on most of the details needed to help doctors avoid big premium increases.

If true, that would be great. But Ehrlich has balked at the funding source proposed by Busch and Miller, a tax on health-maintenance organizations.

The Herald-Mail continues to believe that, at best, lawmakers will put together a stopgap measure in this special session, to give themselves time to work on a more comprehensive measure. Citizens need to keep the pressure on, because this truly is a life-ora-death issue.

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