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Committee hears malpractice bills

March 16, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard a series of bills to reform medical malpractice liability laws in Maryland, one of them providing comprehensive reform, but most dealing with one or another pieces of the malpractice puzzle.

Those pieces include, among other things:

· Requirements for expert witnesses in malpractice cases

· Structured payments of damages in such cases

· "Good Samaritan" protection for health-care providers in certain emergency situations

· Caps on noneconomic awards

· Caps on plaintiff attorneys' fees

· Exclusion of an apology or expression of sympathy as evidence of malpractice

The malpractice issue has been characterized as a battle between physicians and trial lawyers, and representatives of both packed the committee room to testify.

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The most comprehensive bill, the Maryland Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, includes nearly all of the reforms that have been championed by doctors across the state who've seen the cost of their malpractice insurance premiums soar by more than 50 percent - and even more for specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery - in the past two years.

It originated with Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration and is nearly identical to the bill the administration presented to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week. Many of the same witnesses who appeared last week returned Tuesday.

Administration representatives said that malpractice legislation approved so far has not solved the problem. S. Anthony McCann, the new secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the Maryland Patients' Access to Quality Health Care Act of 2004, approved by the General Assembly in December and again in January - over Ehrlich's veto - puts the state at economic risk. It sets up a stop-loss fund, paid for with a new tax on HMOs, that would subsidize malpractice premiums at last year's rate. "The risk is that rates could rise faster than projected," McCann said.

He said he's been told about defensive medicine, which is raising the cost of health care overall.

But committee members noted that one of the bill's major elements, the structured payment of damages, is available under current law but rarely requested and almost never used. They also wanted to know how much money malpractice insurers really have on hand and whether they need that much.

"I don't think that tort reform and insurance reform are mutually exclusive," said Del. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore.

Representatives of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association questioned how much such companies should keep in reserve for projected payments. They also complained about the portion regulating expert witnesses, which equates such testimony with the practice of medicine.

"They could be subject to peer review and discipline" just for testifying, said Dan Dougherty, representing the association.

Dougherty said the provision "almost totally removes the rights of plaintiffs to go forward with expert witnesses.

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