- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said he is no longer considering a proposal to fund a medical-malpractice insurance relief plan with revenue from a new tax on health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

“I told [House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.] the tax is off the table, but everything else is on the table,” said Mr. Ehrlich, who has opposed levying new taxes.

The Republican governor has been working with the Democratic legislative leaders to craft a malpractice-insurance reform plan for a special General Assembly session before a 33 percent increase in insurance premiums takes effect at year’s end. The state doctors’ first payments for the higher premiums are due Dec. 1.

Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller had favored the HMO tax to help defray settlement costs for the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, the state’s largest insurer of doctors. Physicians have warned that Med Mutual’s higher premiums could force them out of business or out of the state.

Mr. Ehrlich said he is scheduled to meet today with Mr. Busch, who has supported his tort-reform efforts, and Mr. Miller, a trial lawyer who has opposed his efforts to limit malpractice litigation.

“The problem is, once we nail down one problem, another one pops up,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat.

Yesterday, a panel assembled by Mr. Miller — the Senate’s Special Commission on Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance — issued 17 preliminary recommendations for overhauling the state’s tort system.

The findings include calls for better reporting of medical misadventures, requiring the losing side to pay litigation costs and increasing malpractice deductibles.

However, the commission’s chairman — Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat — said he doesn’t think a special legislative session can be held before his panel finalizes its recommendations at its next meeting, Dec. 1.

“I think the odds are against it,” Mr. Frosh said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of at least two dozen physicians — clad in white lab jackets — rallied on Lawyers Mall in front of the State House, calling for long-term tort reform.

“If meaningful, common-sense, long-term reforms are not enacted, Marylanders will continue to lose more and more access to the care they deserve,” said Dr. Mark E. Artusio, a surgeon at Frederick Memorial Hospital.

The coalition, “Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients,” is advocating a five-point reform plan that includes a tort-reform package modeled after reforms enacted in California and stronger “good Samaritan” protections for doctors.

The platform calls for:

• More competition for insurance providers.

• Creation of “health care courts” similar to those in Indiana that block frivolous lawsuits from making it to court.

• New rules requiring that expert witnesses have the same specialty as the doctors on trial.

California’s model, adopted in some form by more than half of all states, limits noneconomic damages, such as for pain and suffering, in malpractice jury awards. The cap does not apply to economic damages, such as lost wages.

Med Mutual, which covers about 6,000 doctors in Maryland, has been authorized to increase premiums by 33 percent on Dec. 31, after having raised premiums by 28 percent last year and 10 percent the previous year.

Maryland insurance regulators also have approved a 59.6 percent increase for the Medical Protective Co. and are reviewing rate-increase filings from the two other insurers that cover the state’s doctors.

“If nothing is done, access to all types of care will be curtailed across Maryland,” Dr. Karl Riggle, a Washington County surgeon and the coalition’s founder, said during yesterday’s rally.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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