Malpractice bill gets qualified support from doctors, lawyers

Stripped-down measure approved by House defers critical issues to task force

April 09, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

At odds for months over reforming the medical malpractice system, groups representing the state's doctors and trial lawyers gave qualified support yesterday to a stripped-down reform bill at a hearing in the state Senate.

Even the bill's supporters, however, said it goes only a short way toward curbing the rapid increase of malpractice premiums while deferring the knottiest issues for a legislative task force to study later this year.

"The mile we have to walk, we're probably going to go a few hundred yards forward" with the bill, Del. Anthony G. Brown told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, chaired a House of Delegates work group that produced the limited reform bill, which has already passed the House.

Besides setting up the task force, the House-passed bill would require mediation before malpractice cases could go to trial, potentially cutting litigation costs. It also would prevent malpractice plaintiffs from recovering medical expenses which had already been paid by an insurer. Since health insurers sometimes, in turn, get paid back by the plaintiffs, this would add to health insurer costs.

Brown, who is also vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the House decided not to act this session on two provisions which could have more impact on malpractice premiums.

One, supported by the doctors and other health care providers, would have lowered potential payouts in wrongful death cases.

The other, supported by the trial lawyers, called for cutting premiums for the highest-risk doctors while raising them for others.

Both ideas were complex enough to require more study, Brown said.

Doctors, hospitals and other providers have been pushing for reform, particularly since malpractice premiums jumped 28 percent this year for most of the state's doctors. The Senate committee killed earlier a bill backed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that would have put more stringent limits on payouts to patients and on attorney fees.

Steven B. Larsen, the former insurance commissioner who represents a coalition of health care providers seeking reform, said his group didn't object to the watered-down House bill but added, "the crisis continues."

The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, which doesn't characterize the rising malpractice rates as a crisis, also supported the bill, with technical amendments, such as changing the schedule set out for mediation.

Health insurers opposed the bill. They objected to provisions blocking their ability to recover medical costs they've paid out before a malpractice verdict is returned.

"This makes the decision that medical malpractice premiums should be reduced at the expense of health premiums," said Deborah R. Rivkin, executive director of the League of Life and Health Insurers of Maryland, a trade group.

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