- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A group of Maryland doctors yesterday urged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to issue an executive order to freeze for 90 days a steep increase in their medical-malpractice insurance premiums.

“The governor must move now to maintain patient access to care by ordering the [Maryland Insurance Administration] to freeze these payments until a long-term, legislative solution to the medical-liability crisis can be found,” said Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a general surgeon from Hagerstown, Md., and head of the Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients coalition.

The doctors’ request echoes a suggestion that state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has offered several times over the past two weeks.

“The governor has in his quiver the ability to delay any type of rate increase by executive order,” Mr. Miller told The Washington Times on Monday.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell yesterday said such an order is unlikely because the Republican governor “remains focused on long-term [tort] reform.”

Mr. Fawell said Mr. Ehrlich “can’t just wave a wand and make these insurances hikes disappear.”

“The governor understands [the doctors’] concern,” the spokesman said. “He understands the sense of urgency, and he wholeheartedly agrees that we need to put a stop to these premiums as soon as possible, but it has to be through a legislative solution.”

Doctors have said that a 33 percent increase in their insurance premiums this year will force them out of business or out of the state, having already absorbed a 28 percent increase last year and a 10 percent increase in 2002.

Mr. Ehrlich, who has led the reform effort, has been working with Mr. Miller and other Democratic legislative leaders on legislation for a proposed special General Assembly session on the issue this month.

“We think the governor should [impose an executive order] if a special session becomes out of the question for this year, in order to avoid an further loss of access to care for Marylanders,” Dr. Riggle told The Times yesterday.

The Times reported yesterday that Mr. Miller, a trial lawyer who has opposed the governor’s efforts to limit malpractice lawsuits, said a special session is highly unlikely, but the Ehrlich administration remains “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects.

Save Our Doctors has suggested a five-point plan that includes a tort-reform package modeled after California’s reform law, which limits to $250,000 jury awards for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. Maryland limits such jury awards to $635,000.

Higher insurance premium payments went into effect Dec. 1 and are to be paid in full by Dec. 31. The 33 percent increase will raise some doctors’ premiums to as much as $150,000 per year.

Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, the state’s largest insurer of doctors, has said it is beset by a surge in malpractice payouts.

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