Md. malpractice issues targeted by Senate panel

Miller names commission to conduct study, draft bill

April 24, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has named a "special commission" of a dozen senators to conduct a broad study of medical malpractice issues and draft legislation in time for next year's General Assembly session.

One of the highest-profile problems addressed in the just-completed legislative session - and ultimately unresolved - was how to control the escalation of malpractice premiums, which has forced some doctors out of practice.

The issue heated up last fall when Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, which provides malpractice coverage for most of the state's doctors, raised premiums 28 percent. Premiums for obstetricians, the hardest-hit group, rose to more than $115,000 a year. Some stopped delivering babies, and medical groups predicted a widening crisis in access unless changes were made.

Medical Mutual's average claim paid jumped to $367,000 last year from about $234,000 in 2000.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. offered a reform bill, backed by doctors and other provider groups, and a House work group put together a different package. Both died in the Senate.

The commission Miller named would assemble a high-powered group - including the chairs of all four policy committees in the Senate - but it appears to pre-empt the possibility of a joint study that would involve representation from the House of Delegates and the Ehrlich administration.

Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat who chaired the House work group during the session, said his group might meet over the summer.

Nancy Fiedler, senior vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association, which pushed for malpractice reform, said, "We appreciate the fact that there will be continued focus on the issue. But we had hoped it would be addressed by the Senate and House, together with the administration, and still hope that will be the result."

Miller said yesterday that Ehrlich had opposed a House-Senate panel, which would have been created by the House bill, because the administration wouldn't have had representation. So, he said, he decided to move ahead with a Senate-only group rather than wait for agreement on how the House, Senate and the administration could study the issue together.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said there had been discussions over the past several months of various forms of joint study. "The governor looks forward to working with President Miller," she said.

Also, she said, Ehrlich might convene a special session of the legislature if malpractice premiums take another upward turn.

Miller and Brown said a special session would be unlikely to resolve the problem unless a consensus could be reached beforehand. "The legislature and the governor would need to work together on the basic elements of a solution" before the session convened, Brown said.

The defeated Ehrlich bill would have put tighter limits on pain-and-suffering payouts to injured patients.

In a letter to members of his commission, Miller said the limits would not have cut malpractice rates significantly but would have "severely curtailed the rights of injured victims."

He asked the panel to look at issues ranging from how the insurers set rates to "policing of repeat offender physicians" to patient safety to creating a state fund to aid victims. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, will head the commission, Miller said.

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