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One good year no reason to halt malpractice reform

August 23, 2005

After Maryland's largest malpractice insurer announced that it has no plans for a rate increase next year, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that making the case for additional reforms would be "hard to do."

Translation: The legislature is off the hook for another year, and an election year at that. This decision to delay additional reforms should be an election issue in 2006.

Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland said in a letter to doctors it will not need an increase this year, in part because defense costs and awards fell 15 percent from the record amounts of 2003 and should drop again next year.

Why costs increased so much in 2003 is something Med Mutual officials can't explain. Dennis O'Brien of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association told The (Baltimore) Sun that it was a "spike" and that there "never was a crisis."

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Tell that to Dr. Chalmers Ensminger, a Hagerstown gynecologist who stopped practicing in June after 30 years. Ensminger told The Herald-Mail that after his premiums went up by 33 percent annually for two years in a row, he hoped the so-called "stop loss" bill to subsidize his premiums would help.

But due to technical difficulties, the legislature didn't get the money to him until after the bill was due in April. It was June before he received a $3,800 subsidy for his 2005 premium.

Ensminger had 1,400 active patients, most of whom transferred to Dr. George Manger of Hagerstown. But the trend is toward fewer doctors going into that specialty, meaning that citizens have fewer options for care.

In addition, the rate subsidy the doctors get now will be phased out over several years, meaning that doctors will once again face financial problems as they seek affordable insurance.

Without a long-term solution, Hagerstown-area residents may find themselves forced to travel to big-city hospitals and waiting months for services they once received within weeks at home.

This issue cries out for some serious study of long-term solutions that would cut malpractice insurance costs as well as ensure patient safety. We hope the General Assembly has some members who can look beyond 2006 to the long-term welfare of Maryland's citizens.

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