- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. yesterday told a group of doctors that lawmakers will resolve Maryland’s looming medical malpractice insurance crisis.

“We promise to work hard, and I think in the end the hospitals, the nursing homes and the physicians are going to say, ‘Thank you for a job well done,’” Mr. Miller said during a luncheon for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. “I am confident that we can do it. We have to do it, we must do it and we will do it.”

Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s County Democrat and trial lawyer who has opposed limiting medical malpractice lawsuits, spoke to more than 100 business leaders, many of them doctors.

Physicians at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown refused to perform non-emergency procedures for one week last month to protest a 33 percent increase in malpractice insurance premiums.

Doctors across Maryland have said the higher insurance premiums could force them out of business or out of the state. The first installments on the higher premiums are due today, but the leader of a doctors group said many physicians would decline to pay.

“There are quite a few physicians on the medical staff at Washington County, and I have heard from other medical staffs across the state that are planning on not paying their premiums,” said Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a general surgeon at Washington County Hospital.

Dr. Riggle also heads Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients, a statewide coalition of physicians demanding medical malpractice reform, including limits on jury awards and attorney fees.

Calling today a “day of reckoning,” Dr. Riggle said he did not know how many members of his group would withhold their first payments to protest the higher rates.

Save Our Doctors, which greeted Mr. Miller with picket signs at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, has suggested a five-point plan that includes a tort-reform package modeled after California regulations and stronger “good Samaritan” protections for doctors.

The plan includes:

• More competition for insurance providers.

• Creation of “health care courts” similar to those in Indiana that block frivolous lawsuits.

• Rules requiring that expert witnesses have the same specialty as the doctors on trial.

California’s model, adopted in some form by more than half of the states, limits noneconomic damages, such as for pain and suffering, in malpractice jury awards. The cap does not apply to economic damages, such as lost wages.

Save Our Doctors plans a rally today in Annapolis before the Senate’s Special Commission on Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance meets to draft malpractice reform legislation.

The panel, set up by Mr. Miller, has issued 17 preliminary recommendations for overhauling the state’s tort system.

The findings include calls for better reporting of medical mistakes, requiring the losing side to pay litigation costs and increasing malpractice deductibles.

The state’s largest medical insurance supplier, the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, has said it is suffering from a surge in malpractice payouts.

The insurer, which covers about 6,000 doctors statewide, has been authorized to increase premiums by 33 percent for malpractice policies effective Dec. 31, after having raised premiums by 28 percent last year and 10 percent in 2002. The latest increase will force some doctors to pay as much as $150,000 a year in insurance premiums.

State Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat and a member of the Senate commission, said state officials are considering using $30 million to $50 million in taxpayer funds to cover the higher malpractice-insurance premiums this year.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who has led the reform effort, has not publicly discussed the cost or indicated how he would pay companies that insure doctors.

However, the governor has said no money from the state’s general fund will be used and has ruled out a proposed tax on health maintenance organizations, which would have generated an estimated $80 million.

Mr. Ehrlich, who has been working with Democratic legislative leaders to craft a malpractice-insurance reform plan for a special General Assembly session before the end of the year, said last month he would meet again with lawmakers today.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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