- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Wearing the long white coat that identifies him as a physician, Dr. Riggle roamed around the State House, talking to legislators, consulting with a paid lobbyist and watching from the gallery as the Senate and House of Delegates debated bills for reforming state malpractice insurance laws and providing relief for doctors whose malpractice insurance premiums increased, on average, 61 percent for 2004 and 2005.

Dr. Riggle is just one of many doctors from around the state who continually appeared at the state capital last year to testify at committee hearings, meet with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and legislative leaders, and lobby their senators and delegates for malpractice insurance reform.

They are motivated by a deep discontent with what is happening to their profession and a conviction that the malpractice insurance burden is becoming so heavy that unless something is done, they and many of their colleagues will have to retire, move out of state or curtail their practices to avoid treating high-risk patients.

“The battle is about medical access,” Dr. Riggle said as he stood in the basement of the State House late Wednesday, trying to figure out exactly what was in a compromise malpractice bill that would get final approval about 3:30 a.m. Thursday in the state Senate.

While the outcome was mixed, the early assessment by Dr. Riggle and Dr. Steven L. Diehl, a radiologist at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown, was that the bill was a good first step.

Doctors have always had their interests represented in state government through the Maryland State Medical Society. At times, individual physicians have come to Annapolis to testify on health-related issues and seek help for specific problems facing the health care industry.

But the surge in the cost of malpractice insurance the last two years has created a new activism in the profession, and Dr. Riggle has been in the forefront of that activism as the founder of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients. The coalition of physicians was formed specifically to seek a solution to what they believe is a health care crisis caused by increasing costs of insurance that protects them from lawsuits.

Dr. Diehl worked at the hospital until midnight Tuesday, read two scans and slept on the couch at home so he wouldn’t wake his wife when he got up to join a car pool to Annapolis. But he said it is worth it because if doctors don’t communicate with legislators, “where will they get their education” on the need for changes in malpractice law?

Dr. Thomas Chappell, an internal medicine specialist who heads the Braddock Medical Group in Cumberland, Md., said lobbying the governor and Legislature was a new but enlightening experience.

“I’m all the wiser for it, but I think it’s a wake-up call to physicians on how difficult the political process is to negotiate,” he said.

The bill that was approved Thursday morning and is expected to be vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich this week contains some changes in malpractice law intended to encourage early settlement of malpractice claims and reduce costs of damages awarded to patients who claim they were harmed by medical mistakes made by health care professionals.

It also will slash the 33 percent rate increase for 2005 to 5 percent and provide money to ensure against similar increases over the next three years.

The medical society and the Maryland Hospital Association will wait until Tuesday to announce whether they think the bill will do enough good to warrant Mr. Ehrlich’s signature.

Dr. Chappell said, “I truly believe the lawmakers turned a deaf ear on what was happening.” He also criticized Mr. Ehrlich, and said the governor is going to suffer “significant political damage” for challenging the Legislature and losing.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Dr. Riggle and his colleagues have done a good job of making their case to the Legislature. Mr. Miller is an opponent of major changes in malpractice law that he said would hurt patients seeking compensation for problems caused by medical mistakes and negligence.

“He [Dr. Riggle] was very thoughtful. He had a reasonable approach,” said Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s County Democrat and trial lawyer. “He never sought personal gain. He sought nothing but the public good.”

Regardless of their feelings on the value of the bill passed by the General Assembly, doctors say they will be back in Annapolis when the Legislature returns Jan. 11 to consider Mr. Ehrlich’s expected veto of the bill and on Jan. 12 when the 2005 session begins.

“We’ve taken the first steps,” Dr. Riggle said. “We plan to remain active.”

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