- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Ehrlich administration yesterday said its tort-reform bill would pay for more than half of a 33 percent increase in doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums.

“The doctors will still pay a rate increase in the area of 13 to 14 percent,” said Donald J. Hogan Jr., the administration’s deputy legislative officer. “The state the first year picks up about 60 percent of the 33 percent rate increase.”

Doctors have said the insurance-premium increase could force them out of business or out of the state. The higher premiums are due Dec. 31, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has called for a special legislative session on Tuesday to address the issue.

Yesterday, the leader of a doctors group lobbying for tort reform said he was surprised to hear that the government’s plan would not fully cover the premium increase.

“A 13 percent increase still seems like a pretty big increase,” said Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a Washington County surgeon and founder of the Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients Coalition. “I would like to analyze it further.”

Dr. Riggle’s group and several lawmakers yesterday examined copies of the 55-page legislative plan in preparation for next week’s special session.

“There are a number of things that I would like to see in it. There are a number of things I would like to see stronger,” Dr. Riggle said. “I think this is a good compromise. What we need to make sure is that this is what in fact passes as opposed to some last-minute withdrawals of key components.”

The Save Our Doctors group has drafted its own version of a tort-reform bill, called the Medical Access Comprehensive Reform Act, or MACRA. The 23-point plan calls for setting up a “health court” within the county circuit-court system and lifting a tax credit for health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to cover doctors’ higher insurance premiums.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has said he opposes lifting the tax credit and instead would use the state’s general fund to cover the premiums.

MACRA 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.

Mr. Hogan said the governor’s plan would keep the cap at $650,000 and would not include a “health court.”

He noted that the bill also would provide $24 million in Medicaid reimbursement payments to obstetricians, neurosurgeons, orthopedists and emergency-room physicians and would increase other reimbursements to doctors who have complained of late payments.

But Dr. Riggle said he is concerned that the reimbursements would not go far enough.

“This will help fund some specialists,” he said. “The two other groups, including primary-care and general surgeons, will see no further increases, yet they see more patients than the other four speciality groups referenced in the bill.”

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

As of Wednesday, “6,144 premiums were paid, compared to 6,154 at this time a year ago,” the Associated Press reported.

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

Legislative hearings on the Ehrlich administration’s bill will begin Monday, and the special session will get under way on Tuesday.

It will be the first special session in Maryland 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.

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