Md. Gov. Ehrlich Calls Special Med-Mal Session But Details of Proposal Remain Unclear

December 22, 2004

Days after Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced he had reached an agreement with top legislative leaders to call a special session of the legislature to work on medical malpractice insurance reform, details of the agreement remain largely a mystery.

Dennis O’Brien, public relations chairman for the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, said he had gotten no information on the governor’s plan except a list of items that contained few details on what might be included in the bill.

“I can’t comment until I see a bill, and it would be unfair for me to take a position on something I haven’t read,” O’Brien said.

Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a Hagerstown surgeon who heads a statewide physicians’ group pushing for insurance reform, said it appeared from what he knew that the governor’s bill “at this point is probably not sufficient” to reduce the cost of malpractice settlements and help hold the line on future premium increases.

But he was unaware of many of the specifics of the plan that is intended to provide relief from massive premium increases for many doctors. Average premiums have increased more than 60 percent the last two years, and premiums in high-risk specialties have gone up at a higher rate.

The governor, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have been negotiating for weeks trying to work out an agreement that could be put in place before Dec. 31, the last date for doctors to pay premiums for next year. Some doctors have said they will have to shut down or restrict their practices if they have to pay the higher premiums.

Ehrlich announced Friday that he would call a special session for Dec. 28 even though although some differences with Miller and Busch remained to be resolved. Legislative leaders said there should be a broad agreement before lawmakers were brought back to Annapolis.

‘”I think he put the cart before the horse,” Miller said Monday. “The final bill hasn’t been drafted yet. I haven’t seen it. The governor hasn’t seen it.”

“I don’t have enough time really to count votes and explain to the various senators why they need to give up their preconceived ideas on this issue and move to the middle to help solve the crisis,” Miller said.

Legislative leaders like to limit sessions to one day, but the Senate president said he doesn’t think that will be possible.

‘”I’ve got to think three days,” he said.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, chairman of a Senate commission that studied the medical malpractice issue over the summer and fall, said he had seen the list prepared for the Friday meeting among Ehrlich, Busch and Miller detailing areas of agreement.

“That stuff hasn’t been agreed to” by members of the Senate, Frosh said. “Our commission considered and rejected a bunch of it and put other stuff in it. I don’t think you can say this is a list that’s been agreed to by the Senate.”

The proclamation Ehrlich signed late Monday calling the special session said increases in malpractice insurance premiums “are causing physicians to stop or limit their practices, birthing centers to close and hospitals and other health facilities to restrict health care.”

“Immediate action is necessary to ensure that the costs of medical malpractice insurance are curtailed and that access to health care is maintained,” the proclamation said.

Ehrlich aides said the bill the governor will present to the legislature is still being drafted.

A list of “consensus issues” based on the agreement with Busch and Miller indicates the bill will includes some restrictions intended to hold the line on the cost of future malpractice insurance settlements, among them stricter standards for doctors who testify in malpractice suits, mandatory mediation before claims could be pursued in court and limited restrictions on payments for noneconomic “pain and suffering” awards in malpractice cases.

But the bill does not include some changes sought by doctors such as limits on fees paid to lawyers and allowing malpractice awards to be paid over a number of years instead of all at once.

Miller, Busch and Ehrlich also have not agreed on a plan to temporarily freeze insurance premiums and use state funds to cover losses the insurance company might suffer if payments exceed premiums.

Miller said he and Busch would like to raise the money by requiring health maintenance organizations to pay the 2 percent premium tax paid by all other insurers. Ehrlich opposes the tax bill and wants to use existing state revenues.

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

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