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Special session starts today, with hopes for quick action

December 28, 2004

Many Maryland physicians, encouraged by today's opening of a special session of the Maryland General Assembly, have backed off proposed action that might have shut emergency rooms all over the state on Jan. 1.

But the threat of a loss of access to care won't be over until the legislature promises to do more than look at the problem.

Dr. Karl Riggle, the Hagers-town surgeon leading the "Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients" reform coalition, told The Associated Press that many doctors have decided to pay enough of their malpractice-insurance premiums to cover the first quarter of 2005.

The doctors had balked at paying such charges after the state gave Medical Mutual, the largest insurer of Maryland physicians, approval to raise rates by an average of 33 percent.

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The providers are asking for a variety of reforms, including caps on "pain and suffering" awards, a special court to evaluate claims before they go to trial and pre-qualification of expert witnesses.

In a letter that appears elsewhere on this page, the Maryland Hospital Association (MSA) and the Maryland Medical Society (MedChi) critique what Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have proposed so far.

MSA and MedChi spokespersons note that just as Miller pointed out when he was in Hagerstown recently, the governor proposes no dedicated funding source to pay for the cost of a "stop loss" fund to keep doctors' premiums from rising.

Miller has proposed a tax on health-maintenance organizations, while the governor favors taking the cash out of the state's general fund.

The problem with the latter is that the budget is already stretched thin because there has been no resolution on the slot-machine issue. Ehrlich, who pledged no new taxes - increased fees are apparently OK - doesn't want to raise taxes on HMOs.

In a perfect world, HMOs would volunteer to kick in some cash until more comprehensive reform is enacted. If they don't, the governor and the legislature may each have to swallow a little bit of what they don't like to keep Marylanders safe and healthy.

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