Ehrlich offers doctor remedy

Bill proposes to reduce malpractice premiums

Governor to give details today

Calling of special session may turn on new Md. fund

October 26, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sent a proposal to legislative leaders late yesterday that would hold down medical malpractice insurance premiums by limiting jury awards, encouraging the reporting of medical mistakes and creating a fund to stave off the 33 percent rate increase doctors face in January.

The bill does not signify an agreement with the legislature, but the governor said he remains hopeful that the General Assembly can return in special session and pass reforms before the rate increase goes into effect.

"I think it is a sound bill. I think it constitutes a remedy to the crisis situation in Maryland that exists today," Ehrlich said. "It does not mean every issue has been disposed of. It does not mean every issue has been agreed to."

He did not release a copy of the bill to the public yesterday, but said he would provide details today. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - who has been at odds with Ehrlich over how to approach the problem - said he hadn't seen the bill. Members of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's staff said they received a copy yesterday evening but declined to comment on it.

Medical malpractice insurance has become one of the most pressing issues in Annapolis. Separate task forces created by the governor and legislature have been grappling with ways to prevent rate increases that many doctors say could force them to retire, leave the state or abandon high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, was briefed by the governor on the outlines of the bill yesterday afternoon, though he said he got no specifics about some key questions - such as the source of the fund to address January's premium increase. Officials have talked of a fund that would hold down rates by covering some malpractice claims.

Estimated costs of such a fund range from $20 million to $50 million. Ehrlich has voiced a preference for using general revenues to pay for the fund, which would die after a few years, but Miller and Busch have suggested developing a dedicated revenue source for it.

Ehrlich said he took inspiration for the limitations on lawsuits from a proposal that passed the House of Delegates in this year's legislative session but failed in the Senate. It would have expanded the use of mediation in settling malpractice claims, required additional expert certification before a case goes to trial and required arbitration panels or circuit courts to itemize damages, among other changes.

Another proposal backed by Ehrlich during the session would have capped noneconomic damages at $500,000 instead of the current $635,000, and would have required the use of annuities for large awards. It failed in both chambers.

Ehrlich said the limits on malpractice lawsuits, known generally as "tort reform," would be the centerpiece of his long-term efforts to prevent malpractice insurance increases. The additional reporting of medical mistakes would have little impact on insurance rates but is good public policy, he said.

"I believe a comprehensive approach, as I've said from day one, is the appropriate solution to this problem," Ehrlich said.

Miller said he was not invited to the meeting with Ehrlich and did not know specifics of the governor's bill. However, the Prince George's County Democrat expressed skepticism about the prospect that a bill modeled after the House effort would meaningfully reduce doctors' malpractice premiums.

"We'll certainly all come together and try to find the middle ground. Beyond that, my absolutely unqualified position is, it's not going to happen," Miller said.

Busch said the main thing driving the need for a special session is a fund to limit premium increases. If the final bill lacks that, there's no reason to pass a proposal before the end of the year, he said.

"Doctors right now are getting their medical malpractice bills. They are going to be making their decisions whether to stay or get out of business by January 1, and they need to know there is going to be some relief," he said.

The governor and legislative leaders still have time to come to agreement and hold a special session before the end of next month, Busch said.

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