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Governor renews his effort to limit malpractice awards

After his defeat in December's special legislative session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is again pushing a medical malpractice bill that would lower limits on awards to victims of medical mistakes and tighten rules for expert witnesses.

"Governor Ehrlich is asking you to finish the job you started in the special session," Donald J. Hogan Jr., a legislative aide to the governor, told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday.

The bill enacted in December "dealt with some legal reforms, but it didn't deal with enough legal reform," he said. The governor's latest bill represents his third effort in a year to obtain his version of a malpractice overhaul.

The committee killed administration bills last spring and again during the special session in December, when the legislature opted for its own version.

The General Assembly's bill, which survived an Ehrlich veto to become law, set up a state fund to help doctors pay rising malpractice insurance premiums and made legal changes.

Hogan said an actuarial study estimated that the legislation would reduce malpractice premiums by 2.9 percent when it is fully effective in a few years and that the governor's current proposal would generate savings estimated at 18.8 percent.

Maryland's largest malpractice insurer - a doctor-owned company - won rate increases of 33 percent for this year and 28 percent for last year, increasing the pressure for legislation to rein in premiums.

Yesterday's Senate hearing was largely a reprise of arguments heard in last year's debate. Doctors and hospital executives said high malpractice premiums are prompting doctors to quit or curtail their practices, threatening patient medical care.

Trial lawyers and people who said their family members had been injured by negligent doctors said the Ehrlich bill would limit the ability of victims to recover damages and that stricter discipline of physicians is the best way to reduce malpractice costs.

Advocates of more changes in the malpractice system said it is hard to tell what the immediate prospects are for the broad Ehrlich bill or for a number of bills in the House of Delegates that propose many of the same changes.

Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist for MedChi, the state medical society, said there is an "acceptance" by lawmakers that the December legislation provided only temporary relief but is important because "it gives us time to fix the underlying problem."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller expressed skepticism about the need for more changes, but he didn't dismiss the Republican governor's proposal.

The Democratic Senate leader said he has been focusing on an "implementation bill" to clarify parts of the December legislation and spell out more clearly how the premium subsidies would be administered.

Miller said he would review the Ehrlich legislation once the implementation bill has been passed.

Miller said claims payouts by malpractice insurers have been declining nationally, while insurance company reserves have increased.

Daniel T. Doherty Jr., a lobbyist for the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, echoed that view at yesterday's Senate hearing, noting that payouts are down 26 percent at Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, the state's No. 1 malpractice insurer.

"This crisis is not a crisis," Doherty said. "There's something wrong with the insurance industry."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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