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Lawmakers must agree to a malpractice debate

March 23, 2006

It's an election year, so few political observers expected the Maryland General Assembly to take on anything controversial during this session.

But if the legislature wants anybody to take seriously its claim to truly care about the public welfare, it must - at the very least - agree to a serious study and debate on medical malpractice issues in 2007.

Without some action, Washington County will eventually have fewer medical professionals serving its citizens, who will be forced to travel to the metropolitan areas for their care.

In 2005, the legislature passed a bill eliminating a 2 percent tax exemption on coverage premiums for health-maintenance organizations. The money raised was supposed to be used to subsidize doctors' malpractice premiums.

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But Karl Riggle, a local physician and a founder of "Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients," told The Herald-Mail that not all doctors are getting the relief and that their premiums are still rising.

Bills introduced on the issue this year by Delegates Christopher Shank and John Donoghue of Washington County would require malpractice awards to be paid out over time in structured settlements, would give "Good Samaritan" exemptions to doctors who help in emergencies and would establish special courts for malpractice cases.

We've heard objections to some of these measures from trial lawyers, who say that injured parties might need large sums of money immediately to pay for lifestyle changes, such as a handicapped-equipped home.

And, they say, if ordinary citizens can pass judgment on complicated cases involving business, why shouldn't they be able to render verdicts in malpractice cases?

We'd like to hear a full debate on these issues. By blocking that, legislative leaders are open to the charge that their positions wouldn't stand up to such scrutiny.

No, these issues won't be solved in the current session. But those who profess to care about the public's welfare should at least agree to a full study of the issues after the election.

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