- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Democrat-controlled General Assembly yesterday voted to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s veto of a medical-malpractice insurance-reform bill that includes a tax on health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

The Senate voted 31-15 to override the veto in a mostly party-line vote. Two Democrats — Sens. Roy P. Dyson of Calvert County and John C. Astle of Anne Arundel County — crossed party lines to support the Republican governor’s veto. One Republican did not vote.

In the House, 85 Democrats voted to override the veto — the exact number required by law. Nine Democrats joined 41 Republicans to support Mr. Ehrlich’s veto. Four Democrats and two Republicans did not vote.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, said he was “surprised the vote was just the number needed.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, said “doctors should be dancing in the street” over the General Assembly’s action.

“I think the citizens of Maryland were the winners. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans,”said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

But House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert County Republican, complained that the lack of debate before the vote was “unprecedented.”

Mr. Ehrlich on Monday fulfilled a promise to veto a medical-malpractice reform bill that includes an HMO tax, which he called “a tax on working families.”

The bill will freeze the cap on noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $650,000 for three years. Mr. Ehrlich had sought to reduce the cap to $500,000.

Mr. Ehrlich also had sought to limit lawyers’ fees and allow malpractice awards to be paid out over several years, which would be less expensive for insurance companies than paying awards in a lump sum.

The bill does not include a “three-strikes” provision sought by Mr. Ehrlich that would discipline lawyers who file frivolous malpractice lawsuits. The bill also would not require the losing side to pay for the cost of litigation.

The General Assembly’s legislation would reduce the maximum payout for errors leading to death from $1.6 million to $812,500.

“No changes were made concerning tax consequences of lost wages, and no changes were made concerning future medical bills,” the governor wrote. “The provision of the bill that allows the court to appoint a neutral expert is a redundancy because current law already allows a court to appoint an expert in any case. This provision provides absolutely no relief.”

Mr. Ehrlich said the bill “hinges on a harmful tax that will serve to increase the cost of health care,” adding that HMOs will pass the cost of the tax onto their customers.

The bill would require HMOs to pay a 2 percent tax on their insurance premiums to generate about $64 million in revenue over three years to subsidize doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums, which have risen an average of 70 percent in the past two years.

“The Senate did the only possible thing it could do, and that is avoid any possible rate increase,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, said yesterday of the HMO tax.

Mr. Ehrlich yesterday won victories on two other key bills that he had vetoed after the end of the legislative session last spring.

His veto of a bill that would have required companies with state contracts to pay employees at least $10.50 an hour was sustained in the Senate when only 26 of 33 Democrats voted to override. Mr. Miller, who opposed the bill, sided with Mr. Ehrlich.

A bill that would have imposed a 10 percent surcharge on corporate income taxes for three years to provide more money for colleges and universities and restrict tuition increases to 5 percent a year for three years was sustained when House Democratic leaders did not bring it up for a vote.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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