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Ehrlich must ID funds to start malpractice reforms

December 31, 2004

In years past, we have watched with great interest as some Maryland lawmakers returned home at the end of the legislative session, bragging about how they'd voted against new taxes, but secure in the knowledge that because someone else did, local needs would be funded.

Is that the sort of game Gov. Robert Ehrlich is playing with legislative leaders on medical malpractice?

We hope not. The governor should either identify a funding source to fix what ails Maryland's system or go along with the bill crafted this week by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch.

That bill would offset premium increases and increase reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicaid patients through a funding source the governor opposes - a 2 percent tax on the premiums of health-maintenance organizations.

Ehrlich called the legislature into special session just weeks before the regular session was set to begin in hopes of staving off doctors' threat not to pay medical malpractice insurance payments for 2005.

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Without action, those premiums were due to increase by an average of 33 percent of those paid in 2004. And without some change in the law, there would be no end in sight to future boosts.

If doctors saw no progress, they said, they would be faced with several choices, none of them good for their patients.

They could move to other states where legal reforms have been enacted, they could stop doing some procedures - operations on children, for example - that are considered more risky or they could simply retire.

If too many specialists leave this area or restrict what they will do, patients in need would have no choice but to travel to the larger hospitals in the metropolitan areas.

Ehrlich told The Associated Press that the HMO tax "will be passed onto those who can least afford to pay it." Instead, he said he could find $42 million in the general fund budget to finance the first year of malpractice law changes.

What legislative leaders fear is that without an idea of where those funds will come from, the burden might fall on the state's poorest citizens.

If that's not what the governor intends and he has a solution in mind, he should reveal it now. If he doesn't have a bona fide plan, he should go along with those who do.

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