- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — About 2,000 Maryland doctors rallied in the frigid cold yesterday morning demanding legislative action to reduce medical-malpractice insurance rates.

They said their rally in front of the State House is a starting point for a larger effort to become more politically active.

They want the General Assembly to pass four bills that would limit payouts in malpractice cases.

“We’re going to demonstrate we’re not afraid to be involved in the politics of medicine,” Catherine Smoot-Haselnus, a Salisbury ophthalmologist said to a crowd of about 2,000 doctors. “We must mobilize all of our resources.”

Some of the doctors shouted “Tort reform now” after each speaker or held signs that said, “Keep Your Doctor in Maryland.” Torts refer to personal-liability claims.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, told the doctorshe knows there is a malpractice problem, but asked them to cooperate in finding a solution.

“I ask you to frame the issue appropriately,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “The crisis demands action this year. I just ask you to work with us as you have in the past.”

Any new reform legislation faces opposition from insurance companies, trial lawyers and some powerful members of the General Assembly.

One of the opponents is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, who says the risk of liability protects patients from bad doctors. Reducing their liability could diminish the quality of care, according to Mr. Miller and his supporters.

About 80 percent of private-practice doctors in Maryland are insured by Hunt Valley-based Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland. The company, which is owned by doctors, increased its base rate for malpractice premiums by 28 percent this year.

Although doctors win an average of 80 percent of the lawsuits filed against them, the claims doctors lose cost Maryland insurers an average of $386,000 each last year.

The number of claims filed has stayed about the same, but the amount paid on them nearly doubled since 2000, according to Medical Mutual of Maryland.

Lawyers can collect 40 percent of the claim award, plus expenses.

The Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) wants the General Assembly to reduce the percentage of claims that lawyers can collect.

MedChi also wants the cap on “pain and suffering” damages reduced from $630,000 to $350,000, a new accounting method for calculating monetary damages, and permission for insurers to spread payments for malpractice over an extended period of time instead of a lump sum.

Otherwise, MedChi says Maryland is approaching a liability crisis similar to the one that drove about 1,400 doctors to leave Pennsylvania last year.

One of them was Steven Hutleberg, an internist who moved from Carlisle, Pa., to Hagerstown, Md.

“It was in large part because of the Pennsylvania crisis that I moved,” Dr. Hutleberg said as he stood listening to speakers at a podium. “They’re getting in trouble here, too.”

Dr. Carol Ritter, a Baltimore County physician with her own practice, said insurance premiums forced her to give up delivering babies this month after 20 years as an obstetrician-gynecologist.

“Now, at the height of my career, I can no longer do what I trained to do,” Dr. Ritter said.

Her decision was prompted by a recent notice from her insurance company saying her premiums would increase 68 percent this year, which means about 85 percent of her revenue from obstetrics would be used to pay for insurance.

The alternative was to risk devastating medical-malpractice lawsuits.

Karen Nicholson, a patient whom Dr. Ritter assisted with three births, said she must find another doctor.

“I am a victim, too,” Mrs. Nicholson said. “It just breaks my heart to find someone else because of this ridiculousness that has taken place.”

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