Special session puts pressure on lawmakers and governor

Ehrlich urges fast action on malpractice reform

December 27, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Chances are rising that tomorrow's special General Assembly session on medical malpractice reform could end in discord that would tarnish both Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and legislative leaders, painting them more as bickerers than problem-solvers.

Sensing a solution within reach earlier this month, Ehrlich ordered lawmakers to alter holiday plans and return to Annapolis to develop a fix for soaring insurance premiums that some fear are forcing doctors from their practices.

It was a brash move by a governor hoping to solve what he considers to be the most vexing public policy issue facing Marylanders.

"There's some risk, but everybody has to take some risk, everybody has to lead when the situation is dire," Ehrlich said. "The administration warned this was a looming crisis. Now it's a pressing crisis."

Ehrlich, a Republican, was bucking conventional political wisdom, which holds that such sessions should be held only when an outcome is preordained. He implored elected leaders to do their jobs by passing a package of tort reforms and patient safety measures.

But disagreements with Democrats in the Assembly that once appeared manageable grew more unruly by the hour last week.

Democratic legislative leaders continue to oppose Ehrlich over how to pay for a stopgap account he proposed that would keep insurance rates in check, and whether to impose stricter limits on jury awards and attorney fees.

"I think that when the governor made the decision to call a special session, there was a deal. Now some of the parties are backing away from the deal," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County.

"The chief executive of the state is the guy responsible for making things happen," he said. "Everyone will try to blame everyone one else, but in the end, the voters expect the governor to make it happen."

Added Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee: "If nothing comes out of the special session, everyone looks bad, the governor included."

Proposal

The legislation proposed by Ehrlich 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.

For much of the year, Ehrlich delivered dire warnings about the status of medical care.

He gave speech after speech flanked by doctors in white coats, talking of how Marylanders are losing access to health care because doctors are retiring, scaling back on high-risk procedures or moving elsewhere in the face of the state's rising insurance bills.

After months of unsuccessful negotiations with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, Ehrlich finally acted Dec. 17. But critics and other observers say the governor's special-session call is more of a publicity stunt than a legitimate effort to reach an agreement.

"It's typical Bob Ehrlich. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars, $45,000 a day, to try to score political points. It's not designed to accomplish any real result," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat from Howard County. "To go into special session without a deal when we are only 15 days away from the start of the regular session makes it a waste."

Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Ehrlich appears to be preparing to blame Democrats in the legislature for a lack of progress.

"I think it is about politics. I think it's about one-upmanship," Norris said. "It's not about governing and solving problems.

"Bob Ehrlich has blamed the General Assembly two years in a row for not adopting slots. If he doesn't get what he wants in terms of the medical malpractice insurance crisis, I have no doubt that he will blame the General Assembly again," he said.

Ehrlich supporters say those criticisms are unfounded, and they praise the governor for working toward a solution on complex legislation.

"Not only is it worth the risk, we have an obligation to do this," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "To make sure women don't lose their obstetricians, and people who need surgery don't lose their neurosurgeons."

"The issue transcends any partisan considerations," O'Donnell said. "For those willing to make it a partisan issue, they stand the risk of facing the wrath of the citizens of Maryland."

Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, said the old way of thinking - that the governor and presiding officers should reach agreement before asking the Assembly to act - doesn't apply in the current era of divided government.

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