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Malpractice reform hits a snag

March 31, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - As this year's legislative session begins to wind down, the tug of war over reform to Maryland's medical malpractice laws has reached a bit of a stalemate.

Although both houses of the General Assembly have approved corrective measures to the malpractice bill passed during last December's contentious special session, the only other malpractice bill to see the light of day is a bill approved by the House that would, among other things, prevent apologies from health care providers to be used as evidence against them in malpractice suits.

That's despite the fact that nearly three dozen malpractice law reform bills were filed.

The bill, offered by Del. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, also includes some insurance reforms and sets up a task force to study proposals for structured settlements, which would allow malpractice awards to be paid over time rather than in a lump sum.

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Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, held out little hope this week that "meaningful" malpractice reform would occur this year.

"We don't need another task force spending another year telling us what we already know," which is that the system is broken, Shank said Wednesday.

Shank and Zirkin serve on the House Judiciary Committee, and both have championed malpractice law reforms. Shank has sponsored three malpractice bills, heard in that committee earlier this month. So far the committee hasn't voted on any of them, and at this late date, he doesn't expect a vote.

While the Republican Caucus in the House proposed amendments to Zirkin's bill that would have included structured settlements and a number of other provisions that physicians - and Gov. Robert Ehrlich - sought, they were defeated.

And with them, "the last chance this session for meaningful tort reform," Shank said.

Even as passed in the House, the bill's prospects in the Senate are grim, since Senate Republicans have tried, and failed, to get similar bills approved there.

One of the major reforms physicians wanted was "Good Samaritan" immunity, which would protect health care providers in certain emergency situations from suits. Without it, doctors are refusing to be placed "on call" in hospital emergency rooms.

"I find it reprehensible that because of this climate of resistance to change, the life, health and safety of millions" has been put at risk, Shank said.

He said there are three issues the General Assembly "has been missing" this year. He said those include access to care, the economic consequences to doctors of rising malpractice insurance premiums and that "taxpayers have liability" because of the legislation previously approved. That legislation creates a subsidy for malpractice premiums, paid for by a new 2 percent tax on health management organizations.

Although some HMOs have said they aren't passing the tax on to their clients, Shank said ultimately taxpayers will pay for it.

"They're taxing my constituents to subsidize the trial attorneys who are limiting access" to medical care, he said.

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