Again, governor seems poised to put blame on someone else

December 31, 2004|By Michael Olesker

ROBERT L. EHRLICH Jr. will now put into motion the First Law of Failure, which is: Find someone to blame. The governor of Maryland is practiced at this. Last year, he demonized House Speaker Michael E. Busch when slot machine legislation failed. As this year ends, he'll blame all Democratic legislators for the failure of medical malpractice relief - and never mind that they offered him a reasonable compromise.

This is why, in Annapolis this week, you heard a recurring phrase about Ehrlich: He's snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

He called a special legislative session to get financial help for doctors being crushed by insurance costs. Some of the talk was pretty scary. Legislators from rural counties, in particular, lamented the plight of sickly constituents looking for doctors. But too many doctors, they said, have given up their practices and vanished from the map rather than face rising malpractice costs.

Then there was Busch, pausing for a few moments in his speaker's office as Wednesday's long day of debate and compromise drifted exhaustingly into Thursday's pre-dawn hours. Busch talked about a University of Maryland Medical School where concerns over insurance costs are so deep that not a single 2003 graduate specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. (In 2004, university officials said yesterday, they had "one or two" ob-gyn grads in a class of about 130.)

Thus, in yesterday's dark morning hours, the House and Senate passed a bill to keep malpractice costs in check, and Ehrlich prepared to turn his back on it. We go by the governor's words on this, though he has not stamped his official veto as this is written.

Never mind that the General Assembly measure would limit doctors' insurance premium increases to 5 percent in the coming year, instead of the 33 percent increase they face beginning tomorrow. Never mind that medical authorities (including the Maryland Hospital Association) say that proposed legislative reforms would make patients safer, change the way courts award damages for injuries and improper care, and discipline negligent doctors.

What appears to burn Ehrlich, and has prompted him to repeatedly declare that he will veto the legislation, is the 2 percent tax to be levied on health maintenance organization premiums. This, in turn, sent Busch into a third-degree burn.

"Health care people have to be astonished," Busch said, striding into his speaker's office and ripping off his coat in exasperation. "Here's a perfect opportunity for this governor to step up and come to a compromise. Instead, he lets an HMO tax stand in the way.

"Gosh," Busch said, the sarcasm filling each syllable he uttered, "what a unique concept - HMOs helping to cover health care costs."

Ehrlich appears to believe any tax is a bad tax (unless, of course, he can call it a fee) - even if it helps the state alleviate what he describes as a crisis.

Thus, the governor will have to find someone to blame other than himself. He'll go where he usually goes, to AM radio, where the talk-show guys generally live in his back pocket. He'll stand in front of TV cameras, which act with all the insight of unquestioning stenographers.

And, rather than accept the General Assembly bill as an act of compromise, and as a life raft for health professionals whom he describes as desperately vulnerable, he likely will make the case for his hard-core political supporters and hope that they picture him as the victim of a conspiratorial legislature that is out to get him.

"It's like slots all over again," Baltimore Del. Brian K. McHale was saying Wednesday, as the frustrations began to mount. "The governor picked up a handful of muck and tried to sell it as a crab cake." On malpractice, McHale said, "we did the sensible thing and fine-tuned it, and reached for compromise, and he turns his back. It's all posturing; that's all it is."

"But he has a base that will agree with him no matter what happens," said Baltimore Del. Curtis S. Anderson, standing next to McHale in the House cloakroom. "It doesn't matter what he does or says, they'll buy it. But it doesn't make sense. He calls us here and asks us to come up with a solution. We work hard. We reach a solution. And he vetoes it."

On the House floor, Baltimore County Del. Bobby A. Zirkin recalled last summer when Ehrlich visited health facilities around the state and heard doctors tell him their troubles. Zirkin said he went along on all of those visits.

"Doctors need this reform," Zirkin said, "and our bill is even stronger than the governor's bill. This is a lot of what the doctors have asked for, and it's as much as most states have. It's a huge step in the right direction."

That's not how this governor will portray it, of course. He'll say he's holding the line on taxes (and raise them somewhere else and call it by some other name). He'll blame the legislature. He'll go on talk radio and hope nobody's paying attention to the details. He'll stand in front of TV cameras and know that cameras ask no questions. Where he ought to stand is directly in front of a mirror.

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