- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Ehrlich administration plans to forge ahead next week with a special session to avert a medical malpractice insurance crisis in Maryland even though it has not disclosed any details about its proposed reforms.

“The finishing touches are being applied [to the reform bill] by the legislative staff, and we will be ready well before a special session,” administration spokesman Henry P. Fawell said yesterday.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said the state’s general fund will be used to cover a 33 percent increase in doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums that takes effect at the end of the month, Mr. Fawell said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, estimated on Monday that such an effort could cost the state between $60 million and $70 million.

Meanwhile, a coalition of Maryland doctors drafted a 23-point legislative plan called the Medical Access Comprehensive Reform Act, or MACRA.

“With the special session now just a week away, we must redouble efforts to secure passage of long-term medical liability reforms,” said Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a Washington County surgeon and founder of the Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients Coalition.

“We encourage lawmakers to examine our legislative outline closely and, during the coming week, look for provisions that can bridge political and ideological gaps and bring us to a comprehensive and meaningful solution,” he said.

Among its provisions, MACRA calls for ending arbitration in health claims cases and setting up a “health court” within in the county circuit court system that emphasizes mediation in settling malpractice claims.

In addition, the legislative plan calls for establishing a short-term “insurance rate stabilization” or stop-loss fund to cover increases in malpractice insurance premiums for the next three years. Revenue for the fund would come from ending a tax credit for health maintenance organizations (HMO), a move that Mr. Ehrlich has said he will not consider.

Lawmakers have estimated that the HMO tax would generate about $80 million.

MACRA also would cap noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $500,000 except in cases of wrongful death. For wrongful death, the cap would be $750,000 for two or more beneficiaries.

Maryland currently limits jury awards to $635,000.

On Monday, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican who has led the tort reform effort, signed an executive order for a special General Assembly session on Tuesday.

The signing marked the end of weeks of talks among Mr. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and Mr. Ehrlich.

But Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s County Democrat and trial lawyer, said the three have agreed only on particular points for a draft bill, and he is concerned that a special session could be endless.

He said he also is concerned about how to fund a stop-loss plan.

Mr. Busch, of Anne Arundel County, has said he supports aggressive tort reform, but has doubts about using as much as $70 million in taxpayer money for a stop-loss fund.

Hearings on the Ehrlich administration’s bill will begin Monday, and the special session will begin Tuesday. It will be the first special session since a budget-focused session was held in 1992.

A special session will cost taxpayers $45,000 a day, according to a study by the state’s Department of Legislative Services.

What’s more, medical malpractice insurance reform won’t be the only issue debated at Tuesday’s special session. Mr. Ehrlich and leading Democratic lawmakers also will do battle over the governor’s veto of a bill that would set a ceiling on college tuition increases.

The bill would limit tuition increases to 5 percent a year through 2007 and require the governor to increase state aid for higher education. It also would put a temporary surtax on corporate income tax payments to make up for lost tuition revenue.

Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller are trying to round up Democrats to override the veto, while Mr. Ehrlich has enlisted business leaders to help him sustain the veto.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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