Doctors' coverage cost in spotlight

Ehrlich pushes for curbs on malpractice premiums

Del. Vallario favors mediation

January 30, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

An effort to curb medical malpractice premiums for doctors has gained momentum as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continues to draw attention to the issue.

Ehrlich highlighted the problem in his State of the State speech yesterday, days after he introduced legislation that would limit damages awarded to victims who sue.

Doctors blame large jury awards for their malpractice insurance premiums, which increased at least 28 percent this year.

The doctors had their first chance yesterday to persuade lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee that something has to be done to rein in premiums that they say are driving obstetricians and others out of business and jeopardizing access to health care.

The prospects for Ehrlich's award limits are unclear. And other solutions are being proposed to control premiums, including more strenuous punishment for the small number of doctors who make the most mistakes and mandatory mediation to keep costly cases out of the court system.

Ehrlich said in his speech that rising premiums mean patients will have fewer doctors from which to choose, and higher medical bills to pay.

"We must act to ensure continued availability and affordability of malpractice insurance," he said.

Also yesterday, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to introduce a bill that would require mediation in all medical malpractice cases.

He brought a retired Prince George's appellate judge who hears private mediation cases to the hearing with the doctors to talk about how mediation saves time and money.

Howard Chasanow, the judge, said Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and counties on the Eastern Shore have limited mediation programs that he thinks curb unreasonably high jury awards while leaving both sides feeling as though they got a fair deal.

"No one is enthusiastic initially about mediation, but they are usually glad they did it once it's done," Chasanow said. "They leave satisfied that it was fair. ... This might not happen this year at the state level, but it will happen eventually."

It's not clear how much support mediation will have in Annapolis, and the governor's bill faces opposition from victims and trial lawyers who say the number of claims and their awards are not skyrocketing. Some doctors and lawmakers, however, say all of the attention might force the issue this session.

Bernard Siegel, president of the Maryland State Medical Society, known as MedChi, and a Rockville obstetrician-gynecologist, said the group will seek a lawmaker to introduce legislation on its behalf that would complement the governor's bill, which he characterized as "watered down."

The governor's bill would limit pain and suffering awards to $500,000, down from $635,000 but more than the $350,000 the doctors wanted.

It also includes incentives for victims to settle their cases out of court, payment of some awards over time and a method to limit economic damages such as lost wages to actual losses.

Ehrlich's bill does not address lawyers' fees, which doctors say siphon off up to 40 percent of victims' awards and push their premiums higher.

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