Ehrlich says bill on reform is ready

But Democratic leaders say they haven't seen his proposal on malpractice

December 23, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. claimed to have distributed a copy of his medical malpractice reform bill to legislative leaders late yesterday, after most lawmakers preparing for next week's abruptly convened special session had left work for the day.

Ehrlich's office distributed a news release at 5:50 p.m., saying he had given his plan to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

But the legislation, which apparently closely follows a set of reforms outlined in a worksheet used by the governor and legislative leaders in a meeting last week, had not arrived at Miller's and Busch's offices two hours later, and neither of the presiding officers saw it last night. Miller was not in Annapolis, and Busch left the State House for holiday shopping.

Throughout the day yesterday, Democratic legislators grew increasingly frustrated over not being able to read or discuss the governor's proposal for what Busch called the state's most important health care legislation in a decade.

"This is serious business that's going to change the dynamics of the state. It's not just about publicity and politics," Busch said.

According to a one-page "executive summary" of the bill that accompanied the news release, the legislation would make a doctor's apology to a patient inadmissible in court, require mediation, increase the number of jurors in civil cases and restrict who can testify as a medical expert.

The bill would also change how a malpractice victim's economic damages are calculated, reduce the limit on "pain and suffering" awards to $650,000 in wrongful-death cases and crack down on attorneys who file frivolous cases.

The summary does not explain how the state would pay for a fund that would reduce or eliminate increases in doctors' malpractice insurance rates, a key provision designed to provide short-term relief for physicians, most of whom are facing an average 33 percent premium increase Jan. 1.

Ehrlich has said he favors using general taxpayer dollars for the fund.

Busch and Miller have said they can't support such expenditures without knowing what else could be cut from the general fund to pay for them, and Ehrlich has hinted that he might veto a bill that includes new taxes.

Miller and Busch favor removing health maintenance organizations' exemptions to the 2-percent premium tax other insurers pay, a tax that the governor opposes.

According to the summary, the bill will also include $12 million to augment Medicaid reimbursements for obstetricians, neurosurgeons, orthopedists and emergency room doctors.

In the absence of a working piece of legislation yesterday, legislators in both chambers worked on their own versions of a malpractice plan -- underscoring further the lack of agreement between the governor and the Assembly.

Busch said his staff was drafting provisions they want to see in legislation, and criticized Ehrlich for not producing a bill sooner: "Don't underestimate the magnitude of this legislation. You can't just all of a sudden say, `Voila, here it is.'

"We have delegates coming from all over the state," Busch said. "They have a responsibility to review the legislation. The planning of this is starting to be a cumbersome problem for the administration. The longer this takes place, the more problematic it becomes."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, head of a Senate task force on malpractice, said his panel's recommendations remain a viable starting point.

"Our bill is ready to go," Frosh said, adding that he was troubled that he would not be able to review the governor's bill until he is on a plane tomorrow to visit family members in Florida, and would be heading to legislative hearings within hours of his return.

Frosh said it was "an indication of lunacy" that the governor's bill was not available five days before the session.

Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat and tort reform skeptic who served on the senate's malpractice task force, said she was frustrated with the governor's "disorganization" in not producing a bill until so late.

She compared the situation with his initial proposal for slot machine gambling, which came late in the 2003 session. In both instances, she said, it seemed that Ehrlich was trying to balance competing interests rather than arguing for his own vision.

"A big part the problem is that, perhaps, the governor himself doesn't really have a firm commitment to his own set of ideas regarding what should be done," she said.

Health-care providers huddled during the day but, without having seen a proposed bill, were unsure what stance they would take. They said they will continue to push to make the bill as strong as possible.

After reviewing the summary sheet, Dr. Karl Riggle, a Hagerstown surgeon who is a leader of a group called the Save Our Doctors Protect Our Patients Coalition, said: "I think that's credible tort reform there. It's certainly not the entire package we've been working for ... but we've come a long way in the last three months."

"We appreciate the work the governor and legislators are doing, and we understand there is considerable risk and pressure in coming together in a special session without an agreement," said T. Michael Preston, executive director of MedChi, the state medical society. Preston said the doctors' group wants to see "meaningful reforms" and a resolution on a mechanism to finance a fund to stabilize premiums for doctors.

Sun staff writer M. William Salganik contributed to this article.

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