Md. Gov.’s Med-Mal Plan Gets Frosty Reception from Senate Leader Miller; Special Session in Doubt

October 28, 2004

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller this week blasted Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s latest medical malpractice plan as “a work of fiction” and “a completely different bill” from the one he, the governor and House speaker agreed to at a meeting two weeks ago.

Asked if he sees any hope of a special session to deal with the state’s malpractice insurance crisis, Miller responded with a curt, “No.”

“We talked about certain proposals we thought we could agree on. We shook hands. What he came up with is a completely different bill than the one he, the speaker and I had talked about,” Miller said.

House Speaker Michael Busch agreed there are major problems with the governor’s proposal, but held out hope he, Ehrlich and Miller can work out an agreement that could lead to a special General Assembly session next month.

“It is a starting point for negotiations,” Busch said of the governor’s proposal.

The speaker said it will be up to Ehrlich to take the lead in those negotiations, a challenge the governor said he will accept.

“Clearly this is an aggressive bill,” Ehrlich said.

“I expected the president of the Senate to raise some objections, and he did,” he said. “I’ll continue to talk to the president of the Senate.”

Miller, Ehrlich and Busch agreed at a private meeting two weeks ago to try to reach an agreement on both a short-term and long-term solution to rapid increases in medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors, hospitals and nursing homes.

Insurance premiums for doctors increased 28 percent this year, and Medical Mutual Liability Society, the state’s biggest malpractice insurer, has permission to raise rates 33 percent in the bills that go out to doctors in November.

Doctors from across the state have come to Annapolis to warn the governor and legislators that many doctors, especially those in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics, can’t afford the higher premiums and will be retiring early or moving to other states.

To help with the short-term problem, Miller and Busch want the state to create a fund that would underwrite potential losses by insurers that do not raise premiums. Ehrlich agreed to create such a fund for three years, but did not say where the money would come from.

“If there’s not a funding source, there’s no reason to come in for a special session. You can take this issue up in January,” Busch said.

Over the long haul, the speaker and governor want to put restraints on the cost of medical malpractice suits to hold down future increases in malpractice premiums.

Ehrlich is proposing several changes in the law to make it harder to bring lawsuits and reduce the cost of malpractice settlements, including a stricter limit on payment of non-economic damages often referred to as pain and suffering.

The governor also proposed limiting fees paid to lawyers on a sliding scale beginning with 40 percent of the first $200,000 of a malpractice judgment and 15 percent of anything over $600,000.

Ehrlich acknowledged that provision was not discussed in his earlier meeting with Busch and Miller. “That’s important to the president of the Senate, and it certainly got his attention,” the governor said.

He said he is willing to negotiate on all points, but that “the ultimate impact on the bottom line” must be considered before any changes are made.

Busch said a crisis exists in the health care profession, and the state needs to do something to make sure doctors are available for all Marylanders when they need them.

But he said it would do no good to adopt a short-term solution without changing laws to reduce the cost of malpractice claims over the long term.

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

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