- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., still maintaining that he will not raise taxes, is considering using state general funds as one of several ways to bail out medical-malpractice insurers.

“There are all sorts of options out there,” Mr. Ehrlich said when asked about using the fund. “We’re still talking about them.”

However, House Speaker Michael E. Busch says using state money is the same as taxing Maryland residents.

“You have to have a funding source,” the Anne Arundel Democrat said. “It comes down to money, whether you call it a tax or a fee. If you want to use the general fund, that is still taxpayers’ money.”

Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s counties Democrat, favor a tax on health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to help defray costs for Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland.

The Republican governor has vowed not to raise taxes to pay for such a fund, and he would preserve that pledge by preserve that pledge by using existing reserves.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, also favors a tax on HMOs, but said he also would support using money from the general fund.

“On the Senate side, we would support” using money from the general fund, said Mr. Currie, a member of the Senate’s Special Commission on Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance.

“I think any money we use is going to come from the people,” he said.

James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr., Secretary of Budget and Management, is in the process of cutting general-fund expenses paid to state agencies by 12 percent because of an about $400 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year.

Mr. DiPaula did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Last month, Mr. Ehrlich offered legislation that would implement tort reform, limit malpractice lawsuits and create a stop-loss fund to help insurers.

The governor’s bill includes a provision for a sliding scale to limit attorney fees in malpractice cases, beginning with 40 percent for the first $200,000 of a judgment and 15 percent for anything more than $600,000.

Mr. Miller, a trial lawyer, dismissed the governor’s plan, accusing Mr. Ehrlich of trying to impose a “right-wing” agenda.

He and Mr. Busch, who generally supports the governor’s aggressive tort-reform measures to curb costs, met last week and plan to meet again this week to formulate their own plan.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor did not attend last week’s meeting.

“I imagine they will meet sometime [this] week, but it has not been scheduled at this point,” she said.

Last year, Medical Mutual increased insurance premiums by 28 percent and has received state approval for a 33 percent increase before the end of the year.

State officials have said such increases will force doctors to close their practices or leave the state.

After the increases are imposed, Maryland doctors will be paying as much as $150,000 a year in premiums.

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