- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — A limited medical malpractice bill that may be the legislature’s only response to a perceived crisis in health care was given preliminary approval yesterday in the House.

It would set up a task force to study problems caused by big increases in malpractice insurance premiums and recommend what the state should do to hold down the cost of insurance for doctors, hospitals and nursing homes.

The bill also makes some modest attempts to cut insurance costs, including allowing judges to deduct from damages awarded to patients any health care costs they already have incurred and that their insurers paid.

The bill needs a final House vote before moving to the state Senate with just two weeks left in the 2002 General Assembly session. The proposal is a far cry from the comprehensive approach the health care industry requested and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, proposed.

A key part of Mr. Ehrlich’s plan was a proposal to reduce the cap on noneconomic damages — commonly called pain and suffering — from $635,000 to $500,000. Another important element in his plan would have required awards for economic and noneconomic damages of more than $250,000 to be paid out over a period of years instead of by an upfront, lump sum and reducing the overall cost of the award to insurers.

But that plan was killed in the Senate, and little remains in the House bill that was discussed yesterday.

Kenneth Masters, Mr. Ehrlich’s chief legislative officer, said the deduction of previous health care costs that was covered by insurance will save some money for malpractice insurers, “but that’s not the large awards that are driving our malpractice crisis.”

“It really doesn’t look like there’s going to be much coming out of the session,” he said.

Delegate Anthony Brown, Prince George’s Democrat, defended the decision to scrap most of the proposed changes that the health care industry offered, in lieu of a bill that is mostly a study of the problem and would result in a report to the legislature next year.

“There are a lot of complicated issues, too complicated to understand the mechanics and impact” of the proposed solutions during the short time remaining in the session, Mr. Brown said.

The health care industry conducted a major lobbying campaign this year, including a rally in January attended by more than 2,000 doctors asking for relief from soaring malpractice insurance premiums. Some physicians, especially those in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery, say they have curtailed their practices or stopped seeing patients because they cannot afford to pay malpractice insurance premiums.

Representatives of the health care industry attribute the increases to a steady growth in malpractice awards by juries, a trend they say must be curtailed. However, defense lawyers, who opposed the bills, argued that reduced earnings on investments resulting from the long stock market slump are responsible for the higher premiums, not the cost of malpractice settlements.

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