- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hasn’t given up hope of calling a special session of the legislature to provide some relief to doctors who say huge increases in medical malpractice insurance premiums are driving them out of business.

“We have been conducting a serious round of discussions that will hopefully lead to a special session,” Mr. Ehrlich told reporters yesterday.

Disagreements holding up a settlement have been narrowed to a relatively few issues, the Republican governor said.

“If we can get to ‘yes’ on those issues in the next day or two, chances are very, very high we will have a special session before Christmas,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

Nevertheless, the governor has sounded similarly optimistic notes on earlier occasions and so far an agreement is eluding him, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats.

Most doctors in the state are insured by Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, and by the end of this month, they must pay bills that, on average, are 33 percent higher than the current year.

But the increase is more than 33 percent for doctors in high-risk specialties, and some have curtailed or shut down their practices, with others warning that premiums topping $100,000 a year are driving them out of business.

Mr. Ehrlich described efforts to reach a compromise as “shuttle diplomacy” involving frequent talks among the three major players and their staffs.

However, Mr. Busch said yesterday he hasn’t talked to the governor about the malpractice insurance crisis in more than a week.

Even if an agreement is reached, the speaker said it would be difficult to get full attendance of senators and delegates at a meeting during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season. They are part-time legislators and may have plans with family that would take them out of the area, Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Ehrlich said quick action is needed to preserve access to health care for all Marylanders.

“It will be a collective failure if it doesn’t get done,” he said.

Mr. Busch responded that nobody “can take any pride in knowing there hasn’t been a resolution of the issue.”

Everybody will bear some responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the governor, who is the most powerful public official in the state, the speaker said.

Mr. Ehrlich and legislative leaders are exploring setting up a fund that would protect Medical Mutual against future losses if the 33 percent rate increase is rescinded or reduced and losses from malpractice claims exceed premiums.

Doctors have asked for a temporary freeze in rates if nothing is done by the end of the year so that the legislature will have time to deal with the problem during the annual 90-day session that begins Jan. 12.

The state Attorney General’s Office has outlined a series of options Insurance Commissioner Alfred Redmer could follow to postpone the rate increase, but Mr. Ehrlich rejected the idea of a freeze when it was proposed Tuesday by a doctors’ group.

Mr. Busch said he had made a similar proposal to postpone the rate increase during talks last month with the governor about the rate-increase crisis.

A rate freeze would be an acceptable move because Medical Mutual insurance company has a big surplus, the speaker said.

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