Medical lawsuit reforms in doubt

Ehrlich malpractice bill faces tough Senate fight

`Emotions on all sides'

House leaders to weigh number of solutions

March 17, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

A state Senate committee showed some sentiment for malpractice reform yesterday, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House leaders said they would push forward to pass legislation this year that would curb the rapid escalation of malpractice premiums.

A day of legislative maneuvering, however, ended with no official action and unclear prospects about what type of bill could be enacted this year.

"We now are at the beginning stages of a health care access crisis. I want to stop it before it degenerates dramatically," the governor said. "The last thing I want is a special session called on the eve of another medical malpractice crisis."

However, he conceded, it might be difficult to build consensus for action before lawmakers adjourn next month.

"It's a difficult matter to negotiate," Ehrlich said. "There are emotions on all sides of the issue."

While doctors and hospitals have focused on large jury verdicts as the key to rising malpractice rates, trial lawyers have said the cause is a failure to discipline sloppy doctors and a drop in investment earnings among insurers.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee - historically opposed to limiting victims' rights to recover damages - had been expected to vote yesterday to kill Ehrlich's reform bill. The bill aims to reduce the amount patients could recover in noneconomic damages for "pain and suffering."

But the committee didn't vote in its morning session, and the governor took the unusual step of calling Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller off the floor later to discuss the malpractice issue. By the time the committee voted late in the afternoon, it kept the governor's bill alive. The vote to delay was 6 to 5.

"We knew any hold would buy us time to do something," including allowing the governor more time to lobby, said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties. She was among the senators who voted to delay action rather than kill the Ehrlich bill.

The Ehrlich bill calls for cutting the maximum "pain and suffering" damage award to $500,000 from $635,000, limiting lawyer fees and changing the way economic damages, such as medical costs, are calculated and paid out.

A coalition of doctors, hospitals and nursing homes backed the Ehrlich bill - hundreds of doctors donned white lab coats for a State House rally in January - after rates for the largest malpractice insurer of doctors in the state increased 28 percent.

Although the bill wasn't killed yesterday, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs Judicial Proceedings, said he didn't think the governor's bill would win support there. He said it sought to save millions of dollars in malpractice costs at the expense of injured patients.

But he said a comprehensive solution might be difficult to shape in the remaining month of the legislative session, and that the issue might be deferred for further study.

The House of Delegates, meanwhile, continued talks on trying to fashion a consensus bill there.

Del. Anthony G. Brown, who has chaired a House work group considering malpractice legislation, expects his panel to report its recommendations this week to the House leaders.

John Adams Hurson, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said delegates would consider a variety of approaches in addition to tort reform, including measures to improve patient safety and changes in insurance regulations.

Lawmakers have offered various approaches to the problem. Miller and the trial lawyers support a bill that would change the way malpractice rates are calculated.

Their proposal would cut premiums for high-risk specialists - particularly obstetricians, some of whom have been deciding not to deliver babies because they can't pay the insurance costs. However, that would raise malpractice rates for other doctors and wouldn't help hospitals, nursing homes and others facing higher insurance bills, reform advocates say,

Other proposals include a stronger system of mediating malpractice claims, designed to reduce litigation costs, and changes in the way insurers calculate investment earnings in setting rates.

"We're looking at all those things," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat and member of the House malpractice work group.

"And we're not necessarily looking at them the same way the governor looked at them."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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