- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — The largest medical malpractice insurer in Maryland is looking to drop premiums by 8 percent for next year in what would be its first rate reduction since at least 1992.

The potential premium cuts by Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland would not be seen by doctors for payments due this month, because the state subsidies go down every year over the four-year life of the program, canceling out the premium-rate decrease.

However, a reduction in premiums would be a big difference from 2004 and 2005, when premium increases sparked protests by doctors and put the General Assembly in a special session to address rising rates.

A drop in claims is the reason Medical Mutual is seeking the premium cuts, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Rate increases of 28 percent and 33 percent in the past two years led lawmakers and the governor to call a special session in Annapolis.

The special session created a battle between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who wanted tighter rules for malpractice claims, and Democrats.

Both sides say the break in rising rates makes it unlikely there will be more action on the matter in next year’s legislative session.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the rate reduction shows that “the huge run-up in rates was based on a one-year blip in claims.”

“Today, it looks like that was anomalous, not a trend,” he told the Sun.

State Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and anesthesiologist who supports changing the rules, said the matter is “a dead issue,” until there is “another crisis.”

“It isn’t going anywhere,” Mr. Harris said.

But Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, executive director of MedChi, the professional society for Maryland’s doctors, said the state still needs to change the rules.

He said the organization wants some incremental changes in liability laws in the 2007 session.

Dr. Wasserman said the changes relate to qualifications of expert witnesses and allowing doctors to apologize to patients without the regret being used as evidence.

Dr. Wasserman said the cost of malpractice insurance is still a major factor in overhead costs faced by doctors.

Medical Mutual’s new rates would set base premiums in Baltimore for an obstetrician at $139,474 a year. For an abdominal surgeon, it would be $64,636, and for a pediatrician who performs no surgery, $17,009.

In 2007, the state subsidy will cover 17 percent of the cost. The subsidy covered 25 percent this year.

Meanwhile, a doctor shortage still exists in Cecil County, especially for doctors specializing in obstetrics.

“We’re still way down,” said Dr. Jose Ma, vice president of medical affairs at Union Hospital in Elkton.

Although the state law passed in 2005 helped established doctors — at least for a while — it didn’t improve recruitment efforts, Dr. Ma said.

“At the very least, it stabilized the doctors who were already here. It gave them a willingness to stay in this area and practice,” Dr. Ma told the Cecil Whig newspaper in a recent interview. “But as far as recruitment, malpractice insurance is still a major hurdle.”

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