Monday, December 6, 2004

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. needs to “lead the way” to end a stalemate in resolving the medical-malpractice insurance premium crisis in the state.

The criticism of Mr. Ehrlich comes as the governor is working to craft a malpractice-insurance reform plan with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. Maryland doctors are facing a 33 percent increase in insurance premiums.

“People are posturing, as opposed to coming together to solve the problem,” Mr. Duncan told The Washington Times. “They need to come together and resolve the issue.”

Mr. Duncan, considered a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to run against Mr. Ehrlich in 2006, offered no detailed suggestions for solving the tort crisis in the state.

Ehrlich administration spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the governor is working on a resolution.

“It was never the intent of the administration to negotiate in public,” she said. “Obviously, this is a very complex issue and the administration is looking forward to addressing this crisis before the legislative session.”

Mr. Ehrlich has spent the last two months meeting with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, to make a final push for a special session to help doctors, who have already begun paying the first installments on the higher premiums.

Mr. Miller, a trial lawyer who has backed the governor on slot-machine gambling, helped kill an Ehrlich medical-malpractice proposal during the last legislative session that would have halted the higher premiums, saying the issue needs more study.

Mr. Busch, an Anne Arundel County employee who has blocked Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bill, has supported the governor’s malpractice-reform plans.

Doctors across Maryland have said the higher insurance premiums could force them out of business or out of the state.

Physicians at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown and in Prince George’s County refused to perform nonemergency procedures for one week last month to protest the increase in malpractice-insurance premiums, and some doctors have refused to pay the bills due at the end of the month.

The state’s largest medical-insurance supplier, Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, has said it is suffering from a surge in malpractice payouts.

The insurer, which covers about 6,000 doctors statewide, has been authorized to increase premiums by 33 percent for malpractice policies effective Dec. 31. The premiums were raised by 28 percent last year and 10 percent in 2002. The latest increase will force some doctors to pay as much as $150,000 a year in insurance premiums.

State Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery County Democrat, has said state officials are considering using $30 million to $50 million in taxpayer funds to cover the higher malpractice-insurance premiums this year.

Mr. Ehrlich has not publicly discussed the cost or indicated how he would pay companies that insure doctors.

However, the governor has said no money from the state’s general fund will be used and has ruled out a proposed tax on health maintenance organizations, which would have generated an estimated $80 million.

Mr. Miller told the Associated Press yesterday a funding source is critical to his support for a special session.

“Without a revenue source, there’s no need for a special session,” he said.

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