6 Md. legislators back malpractice reforms

2 top House Democrats back MedChi proposals, but plan's fate is unclear

October 20, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

A group of legislators - including Republicans and Democrats, senators and delegates -threw their weight yesterday behind a malpractice reform package backed by MedChi, the state medical society, adding momentum to the drive to find a solution to soaring insurance premiums.

The package and its legislative support can "give impetus to the discussion" as the governor, House speaker and Senate president try to craft a consensus package that could be presented to a special session this fall, said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Gaithersburg.

Barve, the House majority leader, and Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and speaker pro tem, are two of the six lawmakers who announced support for the MedChi plan at a news conference at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified the party affiliation of one of the Maryland legislators who announced support for a malpractice reform plan. Sen. John C. Astle is a Democrat from Anne Arundel County.
The Sun regrets the error.

Their support is important, but it's unclear whether the renewed effort for reforms will win over Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. A MedChi malpractice reform proposal died in a Senate committee this year.

Donald J. Hogan Jr., a legislative aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor's office welcomes the action as "another sign that we need to take action" on malpractice reform. As for the particulars, Hogan said, "There are some things we're right in there with, and others we need to take a look at."

Dennis O'Brien, a spokesman for the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, said the package closely resembles a bill from last year, backed by the governor and MedChi, that his group opposed.

"This is just the bill from last year with some added window dressing," O'Brien said.

The doctors are hoping for a special legislative session in November or December to forestall a 33 percent increase in malpractice premiums, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, for the doctor-owned insurer that covers about three-quarters of the state's physicians. This year's increase was 28 percent.

"This is indeed a medical crisis we need to have addressed immediately," said Dr. Willarda Edwards, president of MedChi. Without action, MedChi argues, doctors will leave practice or the state because they can't raise charges to cover higher malpractice premiums.

Like last year's Ehrlich bill, backed by MedChi and other groups representing health care providers, the package unveiled yesterday contains a number of "tort reform" measures to curb the cost of malpractice verdicts. They include redefining how damages are measured, a lower limit on pain and suffering payouts, and limits on lawyers' fees.

Such changes have generally been opposed by the trial lawyers and got a cool reception last year in the Senate.

The MedChi plan would also create a state fund - the source of the money hasn't been determined - to allow rates to be frozen for Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, the principal malpractice insurer. If claims exceeded the amount Med Mutual collects in premiums, the fund would pay the difference. All parties in the debate have endorsed the concept of the fund.

The MedChi reform package also would add requirements for reporting health treatments that lead to bad results. T. Michael Preston, executive director of the medical group, said the goal would not be to punish doctors, but rather to track medical errors and find ways to reduce them.

The trial lawyers have argued that disciplining doctors who make errors could reduce malpractice costs. O'Brien said patient safety provisions of the MedChi package are "virtually nonexistent."

All parties agree that a special session is likely only if the governor, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch can reach agreement on a bill. The three met last week, expressed some optimism they could reach a consensus, and agreed that the governor's office would draft legislation for review.

Other legislators backing the proposal were: Sen. John C. Astle, the Anne Arundel Republican who is vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee; Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican; Del. John P. Donoghue, a Washington County Democrat, and Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.