Top Md. officials to hold meeting on malpractice

Ehrlich, Miller and Busch to address rising premiums

October 13, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As doctors and patients explained the wrenching impact of rising medical liability insurance rates during a public hearing in Annapolis yesterday, top State House leaders were preparing to meet to craft a solution to the malpractice problem.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch plan to meet tomorrow to try to broker a deal on medical malpractice issues before the General Assembly convenes in January.

It would be the first meeting of the three leaders since their Labor Day pact on a slot machine referendum, which crumbled within hours.

"There seems to be a mood for compromise," said Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich. "Everyone seems to feel we are staring at a crisis."

Miller and Busch met privately yesterday to review medical insurance issues, which are prompting some doctors to move or abandon their practices.

"We are trying to find common ground with the governor," Miller said. "We are going to try to find out what he feels is an appropriate solution, and what we can accomplish within the limits of his conservative Republican base."

Separately in recent weeks, Miller and Ehrlich have called for a special session of the General Assembly before the end of the year to avert an impending insurance rate increase for doctors averaging 33 percent and to develop long-range solutions to the malpractice question.

Regulators have approved the rate increase for Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society, the largest underwriter for state doctors. Rates went up an average of 28 percent this year.

Insurance officials say they are forced to increase premiums because of a growing number of claims and ever-larger jury awards, which they say are generated by aggressive trial lawyers.

Doctors say many of their colleagues are moving to other states or abandoning high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery.

Trial lawyers say a vigorous legal system is needed to punish sloppy doctors and compensate patients who are the victims of bad outcomes.

The issue is also heavy with partisan overtones. Trial lawyers are large donors to Democrats in Maryland and nationally, while Ehrlich and other Republicans nationwide - including President Bush - back tort reform.

Ehrlich introduced legislation last session that would have limited "pain and suffering" awards to $500,000 and limited legal fees. The General Assembly killed the bill.

Miller has called for the creation of a state fund to help pay liability premiums for doctors.

"The only thing that will stop a rate increase this year is a funding source," Miller said yesterday. "We have to find out what [Ehrlich] is willing to put on the table to stop a rate increase this year ... and see if there is a basis for a special session."

Several lobbyists and industry representatives say a framework for a solution remains elusive and that the chances for an imminent agreement are dim.

Meanwhile, several task forces continue their quest for a solution. Doctors, patients and hospital administrators testified yesterday during a public hearing in Annapolis before the Governor's Task Force on Medical Malpractice and Health Care Access.

Dr. David Zisow, a Harford County gynecologist, said he and his patients cried when he told them he was giving up obstetrics because insurance rates had risen too high. Even with a practice limited to gynecology, office expenses ate up his income for the first seven months of this year.

"The only way I can stay afloat is that my wife works," Zisow said, adding that growing numbers of obstetricians are leaving the business. "Cabdrivers are going to do deliveries," he said.

Dr. Ann Burke, who delivers babies in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said her annual insurance rates ballooned from $45,000 to $112,000 in two years, even though she has a claims-free history. About $900 of the $2,000 that insurance companies reimburse her for a delivery and 10 months of pre- and post-natal care pays for insurance, she said.

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