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Ehrlich brings medical malpractice reform back to the table

March 09, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Robert Ehrlich promised in January that the whole issue of reforming Maryland's medical malpractice liability laws would be revisited, and today a Senate committee will hear the administration's proposed Maryland Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act.

Ehrlich proposed the legislation despite the General Assembly's passage of a reform bill in January, after a December special session of the legislature.

That legislation, called the Maryland Patients' Access to Quality Health Care Act of 2004, created a stop-loss fund to help physicians faced with soaring insurance premiums, paid for with a new tax on HMO premiums. It also put some limits on damages that patients could recover in malpractice cases, but Ehrlich argued it didn't go far enough and vetoed it. After the General Assembly voted to override the veto, Ehrlich vowed to introduce new malpractice legislation.

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The resulting bill essentially seeks most of what Ehrlich didn't get in the first place.

Among other things, it requires further credentials for expert witnesses than the previous bill and caps noneconomic damages for malpractice at $500,000. The previous bill froze noneconomic damages at $650,000 through 2008, but an "escalator clause" allows the cap to increase by $15,000 per year after 2008.

"It's basically what we've been trying to do for the past two years," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Washington/Frederick, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the Ehrlich bill. He serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will hear the bill today.

"The special session was supposed to solve it, but here we are two months later and we still have a crisis."

Mooney said the proposal is "certainly much more fair than the current law," but said he would like to see an even lower cap on noneconomic damages, or "pain and suffering." Mooney said he would support a $250,000 cap.

"There's still unlimited economic damages," he said. "It's extremely generous toward the person suing."

Mooney said he hadn't heard from any local residents who oppose the cap. "Nobody contacted me; I haven't heard from anybody in Washington County or Frederick County recently," he said.

The whole issue, he added, has been "pitting trial lawyers against doctors who save lives."

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, also co-sponsored the bill.

A companion bill was filed in the House, and is scheduled for a hearing next week in the House Judiciary Committee. That bill is co-sponsored by Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington; Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington and Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington - the lone member of the Washington County Delegation to also support the previous bill.

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