Doctors' insurer rebuffs panel's questions on malpractice claims

State lawmakers consider issuing subpoenas for data

October 07, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's largest provider of doctors' liability insurance has refused to provide detailed data to a state Senate commission investigating a medical insurance crisis, and legislators said yesterday they might issue subpoenas to gather the information.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the special commission on medical malpractice liability insurance, was furious after learning that the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society rebuffed questions on claims history, investment reserves and data used to calculate rates.

"This is arrogant, unresponsive and unacceptable," Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said at a public hearing held yesterday by the commission in Annapolis. "There are other alternatives available to us."

Frosh and other senators discussed the unusual option of seeking subpoena power to compel the insurance company, known as Med Mutual, to release the information.

The Senate commission is one of several groups examining the malpractice insurance issue. Doctors and hospitals say that growing jury awards are leading to prohibitively high insurance rates that are forcing doctors to retire early, change specialties or leave the state. They are seeking caps on awards and other changes to the tort system.

On the opposing side are trial attorneys and families of victims, who counter that vigorous legal remedies are needed to hold doctors accountable for mistakes.

Yesterday's hearing attracted dozens of doctors, lawyers, administrators and former patients and their families.

"My wife and I will never overcome the death of our son," said George W. Osgood, a Prince George's County engineer who told the committee how his college sophomore son died during the winter holidays two years ago after being prescribed the drug OxyContin for a sore throat. "For victims, it is about accountability."

Doctors in radiology and obstetrics testified that their colleagues were fleeing the profession because of high insurance premiums.

Senators and other groups are gathering data for a legislative solution, which could come as soon as next month if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and leaders agree on a remedy and convene a special session of the General Assembly to implement it - a possibility under discussion.

Under state law, the General Assembly's Legislative Policy Committee can authorize a standing committee to issue subpoenas and compel the production of documents. While the malpractice commission is not a standing committee, Frosh is also chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which could seek such authority.

Med Mutual proposed a 41 percent rate increase for the coming year; and a boost of 33 percent was approved by the state insurance administration. Last year's increase was 28 percent. With the latest increase, premiums for the highest-risk specialty, obstetrics, will rise to $150,000.

In a Sept. 8 five-page letter, Frosh asked the insurance company for detailed payout information for plaintiffs, broken out by specialty, going back to 1994. He also asked how insurance rates would change if the company used lower estimates for return on investment income, and a host of other data.

The company refused to deliver it.

"To respond to the specific inquiries set forth in your letter ... would require months of work by Medical Mutual employees," company President and Chief Executive Officer David L. Murray said in a letter delivered yesterday. "Moreover, public disclosure of the claims data you seek may undermine our ability to defend our policyholders because plaintiffs' attorneys will surely attempt to distort this information for their benefit."

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