Insurance reform bill might stall Special interest groups oppose measure going to Senate panel today

Public support lukewarm

Legislation designed to lower car premiums in city, suburbs

March 06, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Legislation that could potentially save motorists hundreds of dollars annually in insurance premiums is sputtering in the General Assembly.

Facing vigorous opposition from trial lawyers, doctors and insurance companies, supporters of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's auto insurance reform bill now rate the proposal's chances as iffy -- chiefly because of lukewarm public support.

Baltimore drivers long have felt the pinch of insurance rates that can be two or three times higher than those of their suburban and rural counterparts. But if they are unhappy about it, they haven't told many people in Annapolis this year.

"It's an uphill battle as the bill is structured and the political landscape appears before us," said Steven B. Larsen, a Glendening lobbyist.

The bill, scheduled to be heard by a Senate committee today, seemingly has something in it to displease every special interest group.

It attempts to lessen the medical and legal costs of accidents and requires insurance companies to use the expected savings to roll back rates by 15 percent.

"Unless something changes, it does look like the bill is going to have real problems getting out of the House or Senate," said Jeffrey D. Rouch, a lobbyist for Nationwide Insurance.

The bill's potential insurance rate reductions would be felt most profoundly in urban areas, but would have some effect statewide -- a point that supporters fear has been largely overlooked.

The governor's proposal does not address territorial rating, the practice of setting rates by geographic area -- a system that hurts city drivers but helps everyone else.

Any attempt to scrap territorial rating would have been doomed in Annapolis, where city legislators are too badly outnumbered to expect to change the status quo. Such an effort also wouldn't address a key reason for high insurance rates -- the high cost of claims resulting from accidents in the city.

But administration officials acknowledge that the easily understood harmful effect of territorial rating galvanized city LTC residents in a way that Mr. Glendening's complicated bill obviously does not.

Schmoke supports measure

Meanwhile, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has voiced support for the bill, but has done little else to improve its chances.

"I'm going to see what I can do to rally the troops," said Melvin L. Stukes, a city councilman who has been a leading critic of auto insurance policy. "People have been frustrated by this issue for more than a decade. Maybe they're burned out."

The bill offers painful medicine. It would, for instance, limit the amount of money some accident victims could receive in damages and force some into managed care -- even if the accident wasn't their fault.

It also would deny victims the opportunity to collect from multiple sources for the same injury and allow drivers to waive some coverage that now is mandated.

With the 90-day legislative session nearing the two-thirds point, proposed football stadiums, gun control, taxes and tort reform have emerged as dominant issues.

Mr. Glendening has indicated that if the legislature does not embrace auto insurance reform this year, he may not sponsor the bill again.

"Right now this thing is dead, and [the administration] is trying to breathe life into it," said Michael Gisriel, a lobbyist for the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Glendening aides are not so quick to pronounce rigor mortis. The administration already is talking about rewriting the legislation to address criticisms voiced by the insurance industry. A new version might retain some less controversial provisions that attack fraud and ban the "runners" who steer accident victims to lawyers.

"We're going to work on it," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which oversees insurance regulation. "But I don't think it's going to end up with everything the administration wants."

Speaker's support sought

Supporters also hope to win over House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat who has a strong interest in insurance policy and an ambition for the governor's office that might be helped by the gratitude of Baltimore drivers. "This gets done if Cas Taylor wants it to get done," said David M. Funk, a Baltimore attorney who chaired a gubernatorial task force on car insurance reform. "If he doesn't want it done, it doesn't get done."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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