Md. Leaders Optimistic Over Med-Mal Session

October 18, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and top legislative leaders emerged from a meeting in the governor’s mansion last Thursday, holding out hope of a special legislative session next month to deal with a medical malpractice insurance crisis that is causing some doctors to abandon their practices in Maryland.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller spent about one hour talking about a short-term fix to huge rate increases that will take effect before the end of the year, as well as a long-term solution that would hold down future insurance costs and increase Medicaid reimbursements to doctors.

“We think we can accomplish it,” Busch said. “If there is no immediate relief, I don’t see how some physicians are going to stay in business.”

“What we are trying to do is come up with a bill we all can agree on,” Miller said. “The big problem the governor has is bringing the conservatives in his party to the table. We’ve got to bring the progressives in our party to the table.”

Ehrlich said he was satisfied with the meeting and that talks with the two Democratic legislative leaders will continue.

“There is a recognition, obviously, that this is a profound problem, a serious problem in Maryland today,” he said.

Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society, the company that insures most Maryland doctors against malpractice lawsuits, raised rates 28 percent this year and plans a 33 percent increase next year.

Doctors from across the state testified at a hearing earlier last week that some physicians in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery have shut down their practices and many more will follow suit unless something is done about the pending 33 percent rate hike.

Legislation to try to deal with the malpractice insurance problem passed the House of Delegates at the 2004 session, but the Senate did not act on the House bills or malpractice legislation offered by the governor.

Miller proposed in August that the state freeze malpractice premiums at the current level and set up a fund that would help pay the difference between premiums collected by insurers and the money paid out to settle malpractice claims.

Busch said there is broad agreement that quick action must be taken to keep the 33 percent increase from taking effect. The sticking point is finding a source of money to underwrite the potential losses, he said.

Suggestions have included increasing fines for drunken driving and imposing a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums. Ehrlich has been opposed to the HMO tax or any other taxes, but said Wednesday he would consider alternatives suggested by legislature.

The governor was scheduled to leave on Saturday for a one-week trip to China and Singapore, but he said his staff will continue to work on proposed legislation and submit it to the legislative leaders for their review.

Doctors aren’t the only ones complaining about rate hikes. Hospitals and nursing homes also have been hit with big increases in insurance premiums.

But Busch said doctors are being squeezed by higher insurance costs at the same time Medicaid and insurance companies are holding down reimbursements for health care.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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