Malpractice mulligan

October 29, 2004

WHILE MANY worthy ideas can be found in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s latest attempt at medical malpractice reform, even advocates for the cause must be collectively wondering: Whose team is this guy on, anyway? Mr. Ehrlich's proposal is oddly timed. His own hand-picked task force hasn't come up with recommendations yet. Nor have its legislative counterparts. Nor has the governor struck a deal with the Democratic leadership. The notion of a special session before year's end is dying a slow death. And perhaps worst of all, he has infuriated the person he should be most assiduously courting, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who claims the governor agreed to the outlines of a bill quite different from the one unveiled this week.

So what's going on? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Maryland doctors will get their malpractice insurance bills in a matter of days. They contain an eye-popping 33 percent spike in premiums. The governor can now announce that he has a plan and he's ready to negotiate. He's hoping the docs -- and voters -- won't notice that it has no chance of passage. Mr. Miller is likely on target when he says it reeks of Washington politics: Advocate for doctors, take their political contributions, and embarrass the Democrats. Repeat as often as possible. Passing actual reform? That accomplishes none of the above.

Make no mistake: Mr. Miller is no friend of reform. He sides with trial attorneys on matters of tort law. But he can be moved -- he accepted reforms under similar circumstances in the late 1980s. But he doesn't take kindly to being pushed around. And if Mr. Ehrlich thinks House Speaker Michael E. Busch has been a roadblock on slot machines, he hasn't seen anything yet. Mr. Miller, the longest-serving Senate president in Maryland history, isn't a boulder in the road, he's a landslide.

Is the governor fumbling this issue or is he simply playing politics? Neither answer is good news for ordinary citizens who just want their beleaguered doctors to stay in business. But it's hard to believe politics isn't trumping policy. Take for instance Mr. Ehrlich's failure to come up with a way to finance a three-year stop-loss fund. That fund is the quickest way to bring down insurance rates, but take money from elsewhere in the state budget? That's another non-starter, especially with projected deficits. Once again, the no-tax governor is scoring political points and solving nothing.

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