Ehrlich on `malpractice tour'

Activist: The governor has been touring health facilities to press his case for malpractice reform.

August 27, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

For an apparently healthy guy, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is spending a lot of time in hospitals lately.

On Tuesday, he was in Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. Today, it's Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown. During the past few weeks, he's been in hospitals in Annapolis and Towson and Salisbury. For variety, he stopped off yesterday at a retirement community, Oak Crest Village in Parkville.

He's not going for a physical. Rather, the governor has been devoting a hefty share of his public schedule recently to press his case for reforming how the courts deal with medical malpractice cases.

Rising malpractice premiums, he and others say, are driving doctors out of practice or out of the state and jeopardizing access to care for Marylanders.

Interviewed at his Holy Cross stop this week, Ehrlich said his main goal is "public education" and to encourage doctors toward "a new kind of activism," to meet with legislators and urge them to vote for malpractice reforms.

But legislative leaders decry the governor's tours as grandstanding.

One participant described it as a page out of the "Republican playbook," echoing President Bush's criticisms of trial lawyer and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, the North Carolina senator.

"It's the tour, the malpractice tour," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, unimpressed with the governor's hospital itinerary. "Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks -- and Governor Ehrlich."

The malpractice debate hasn't garnered nearly as much attention as the battle over legalized slot machines in the state capital, but has been similarly divisive with no shortage of study groups convened and trial balloons floated.

As with slots, the Republican governor and the Democratic-led legislature remain deadlocked on what should be done.

With disagreement over almost every facet of the malpractice problem -- including whether it is a problem -- it's not surprising that there's also disagreement over the impact and motives of Ehrlich's travels the past month to promote reform.

Having impact

The governor said he believes his efforts are having an impact. He's encouraged by a recent call by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for a special legislative session to create a fund with public monies that would be used to freeze malpractice premiums.

"I see some momentum," Ehrlich said. "A majority of the members of the legislature have crossed the threshold -- they have an understanding of the issue" and of a need to take action.

Miller, however, a skeptic on the topic of malpractice reform, said the governor's hospital appearances are exacerbating divisions on the issue.

"If he would stay in Annapolis and work, rather than traveling around the state, we could solve this," Miller said.

Ehrlich's hospital visits usually follow the same general script: He meets with doctors and hospital executives in private, then conducts a brief news conference, often in a spot that will give a medical backdrop to a news photo. The hospitals he has visited tend to be ones that deliver lots of babies; obstetricians have the highest malpractice premiums.

Tuesday's news conference, for example, was held in a newly built intensive care unit for newborns at Holy Cross, which will open for patients in a few weeks.

Introduced by the hospital chief executive officer, the governor stood at a podium, with doctors -- several in white lab coats or blue scrubs -- fanned out behind him.

Rising malpractice premiums, the governor said, were leading "the best and the brightest" to retire or teach rather than caring for patients. "This leads to a health care access crisis, which is what we have on this issue."

Beyond the Ehrlich visits, doctors and hospitals are making their own efforts to reach and influence legislators.

"To John W. Citizen, it's rich doctors fighting with rich lawyers," said Dr. Adrian Long, chief medical officer at St. Agnes HealthCare. The Southwest Baltimore hospital is bringing legislators in, one at a time, to talk with the medical staff about malpractice issues, and "encouraging physicians to get active in making donations and writing letters, and encouraging their patients to write letters."

The public needs to understand that malpractice rates can affect care, Long said. For example, he said, St. Agnes is having more trouble getting doctors in some specialties to agree to be on call to respond to the emergency room.

If high malpractice premiums drive away specialists, there will be fewer to work in emergency rooms, putting pressure on the remaining doctors on call.

"We need to articulate to our elected officials that this is to the point where it's going to impact their constituents," said Christine M. Stefanides, chief executive officer of Civista Medical Center in La Plata.

Her hospital and three others in Southern Maryland plan a joint "town hall meeting" next month with legislators and local officials.

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