Party-line vote passes malpractice reform bill

December 31, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly voted along party lines on a malpractice reform bill, with Democrat John P. Donoghue the only local legislator voting yes during the special session this week.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to veto the bill, local lawmakers said. He opposes a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums that would underwrite part of the malpractice insurance premiums physicians pay.

The House of Delegates and the Senate could override Ehrlich's veto if the lawmakers who approved the bill vote for an override.


"I think we have the votes to override," said Donoghue, D-Washington.

"I'm very hopeful that this protected the patients in Washington County that were at risk of losing their doctors or having service curtailed," Donoghue said.

The bill, called the Maryland Patients' Access To Quality Health Care Act of 2004, is an attempt to protect the health-care industry from huge insurance rate increases and puts limits on medical malpractice lawsuits. Some doctors have restricted their practices or retired early due to skyrocketing malpractice premiums.

Dr. Karl Riggle, president of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients Coalition, said he was disappointed in the partisan voting, but he understood Republicans' "sincere views" regarding the HMO tax.

"I think they all worked hard and I thank them from the bottom of my heart," said Riggle, a trauma surgeon at Washington County Hospital.

The bill that passed contains important reforms and is a start, but "certainly not comprehensive, long-term reforms," Riggle said.

Local Republican lawmakers who were reached on Thursday said the bill they voted against was weak.

"The bill that was approved is a disgrace" of the governor's efforts and to the doctors who need real legal reform to survive, said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, Del. Richard Weldon and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. said insurance companies will pass the HMO tax on to consumers.

"I don't think imposing more fees on those who can least afford it is the right answer," said Myers, R-Allegany/Washington.

Weldon said he was frustrated that better funding options than an HMO tax weren't approved. He said the HMO tax "once approved, will never go away."

Other funding options included using the state's share of the national settlement between the states and tobacco companies and revenue from closing a loophole that allowed companies to avoid paying Maryland corporate taxes by setting up shell corporations in Delaware, said Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington.

Mooney and Shank, R-Washington, held out hope that a veto wouldn't be overridden.

"In the next six days, a lot of the problems that are in this bill are going to come to light," Shank said. Shank said he hopes some of the Democrats that voted for the bill will vote against overriding a veto and support real tort reform during the regular legislative session that starts Jan. 12.

According to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, three-fifths of the votes in the House and in the Senate are required to override a veto. It would take at least 85 votes in the House and 29 in the Senate to override a veto.

The measure passed in the House by a 85-44 vote and in the Senate by a 32-13 vote, according to bill information on the General Assembly's Web site.

Whether or not the bill becomes law, local lawmakers said they expect to continue tackling malpractice reform issues during the regular session.

"The reforms that have been put in place, though weak, are better than what we had. I hope we can go back and deal with it again in regular session and find ways to make what we've already done, better," Myers said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, Del. Robert A. McKee and Sen. John J. Hafer could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

How they voted

Following is how members of the Washington County Delegation to the General Assembly voted on a medical malpractice insurance reform package, House Bill 2, the Maryland Patients' Access To Quality Health Care Act of 2004. A yes vote was in support of the bill.

Senate, 32-13

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, No

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, No

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, No

House of Delegates, 85-44

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, No

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, No

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, No

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, Yes

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, No

Source: Maryland Department of Legislative Services and Maryland General Assembly Web site

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