- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says recently passed General Assembly legislation does little to improve the state’s medical malpractice premium crisis and that he remains committed to vetoing the bill Monday.

“The people have a right to expect better from our leaders,” said Mr. Ehrlich, who will introduce his reform bill when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday. “It is reflective of where we are at this time.”

The disagreement is similar to recent, unsuccessful attempts to pass slot machine legislation, which also pitted Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, against the Democratic-controlled state House and Senate.

In fact, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a trial lawyer, lauds the General Assembly’s malpractice reform legislation, despite Mr. Ehrlich’s disapproval.

“This is not just a good bill,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat. “It’s a great bill.”

The legislation, drafted largely with the input of senators, places a $650,000 cap on lawsuit awards for pain and suffering, reduces the cap on wrongful death awards to $812,500 and proposes more stringent standards for expert witnesses.

However, it does not include mandatory mediation, which Mr. Ehrlich says would stop many suits from going to trial, and a three-strikes law that will stop lawyers from filing frivolous suits. The bill also does not require the losing side to pay the cost of litigation.

The governor’s original plan, killed on the first day of the special session in late December, would keep the patient award cap at $650,000 and provide $24 million in Medicaid reimbursement payments to neurosurgeons, obstetricians, orthopedists and emergency-room physicians who have complained of late payments.

The governor’s plan also includes $30 million from the state to reduce the recent increase in malpractice insurance from 33 percent to 12 percent.

Lawmakers want to raise the money by placing a $64 million tax on health maintenance organizations.

Mr. Ehrlich opposes lifting the HMO tax credit, calling it a “regressive … pass-through tax.”

The Maryland Orthopedic Association has split with other medical groups to support Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to veto the General Assembly bill. It agrees with the governor that the bill does not include enough reform and says it will not control liability premiums in the long term.

The group also objects to the legislature’s plan to impose a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums, saying it would result in either reduced benefits or higher premiums for people who use HMOs for their health care.

Mr. Ehrlich has promised to resubmit his bill at the start of the legislative session, as long as his veto is sustained Tuesday. He also has promised to include in his budget, to be submitted Jan. 19, an increase in Medicaid reimbursements and a plan to add millions to help defray the cost of the insurance premium increase.

Many doctors have said the premium increases would force them out of business or out of the state. The higher premiums were due Dec. 31.

However, the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland — the state’s largest insurer of doctors — has released figures that indicate physicians are paying the higher premiums.

State regulators authorized Medical Mutual to increase its malpractice insurance premiums by 33 percent this year, after having increased them by 28 percent in 2003 and 10 percent in 2002.

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