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Medical malpractice bills die in committee

March 24, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

The prognosis was poor for reforming Maryland's medical malpractice laws this year, and this week the House Judiciary Committee removed any form of life support from two of three bills sponsored by Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, to improve the state's malpractice condition.

One of the bills would have imposed criteria for expert witnesses in malpractice cases and sanctions for frivolous suits. The other would have set up special courts for malpractice suits. The committee voted to kill those bills and four others, including a comprehensive reform bill from Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

The committee has yet to take action on Shank's bill to provide "Good Samaritan" immunity for medical personnel working in certain emergency situations, and while it's technically still alive, "I'm not hopeful at this point," he said Thursday.

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Shank acknowledged there had been "a spirited debate" on the bills, "but it's very apparent the Judiciary Committee has no appetite to consider (medical malpractice) further."

Legislation approved early last year to subsidize double-digit malpractice premiums by taxing health management organizations only "sweeps the problem under the rug," Shank said. The subsidies will decrease incrementally until they expire altogether in 2009. "Then the General Assembly will have to deal with it again," he said. "To put it medical terms, the patient is in remission, but still very sick."

Shank said the "Good Samaritan" bill is particularly important in Western Maryland for residents to maintain access to emergency medical care. Shank and Hagerstown surgeon Karl Riggle have repeatedly noted that many physicians no longer take "call" for emergencies, and no longer perform high-risk procedures because they result in higher liability premiums.

But so many powerful legislators oppose further reforms that "when it comes right down to it, it will take a political change before there's any real reform in medical malpractice" laws, he said. "That is really unfortunate."

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, is more optimistic that at least one reform will succeed this year.

Donoghue's bill would require the court to determine whether a malpractice award should be paid in increments or in a lump sum if the award is more than $250,000 and either party in the case makes the request. Such "structured" payments were another issue physicians pushed last year.

House bills 1058, 1059, 1136, 1425

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