Calling the legislation before him a hollow reform, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the General Assembly's medical malpractice bill yesterday, an action legislative leaders said they are all but certain to override when they reconvene today.
The veto came as no surprise - Ehrlich promised to reject the measure before legislators voted on it during a special session last month. But by waving a copy of the bill stamped with the word "VETO" while flanked by dozens of white-coated physicians, Republican legislators and other allies, Ehrlich stepped up his symbolic attack.
He promised a sustained effort to enact more limits on the malpractice lawsuits he blames for driving doctors out of the state.
"The easiest thing to do would be to have a bill-signing ceremony, pretend it was the right thing to do, pretend it was progress and pretend the problem was over," Ehrlich said. "We don't just stand on principle. We stand on good policy. It's doing the right thing, and I want this administration to be known for doing the right thing always."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said they are confident that their chambers will vote to override. Though Ehrlich was surrounded by doctors yesterday, the Maryland Medical Society, known as MedChi, and the Maryland Hospital Association have opposed his veto.
Ehrlich repeated his complaints that the bill lacks key legal reforms he backed and would rely for funding on subjecting health maintenance organizations to the 2 percent premium tax other insurers pay. He said the HMO tax would be passed on to consumers and would make health care more expensive for the working poor.
An Ehrlich spokeswoman said yesterday that the governor was meeting privately with legislators to try to persuade them to sustain his vetoes, 19 of which are due for override votes. But both chambers passed the medical malpractice bill with veto-proof majorities, and Democrats said they saw little evidence that Ehrlich was lobbying hard to stop that override.
The governor spent eight months touring the state and holding news conferences to bring attention to the issue, and Democrats think he will get the blame if the state fails to solve the problem.
"He absolutely, positively wants us to override the veto," Miller said.
Yesterday's veto ceremony appeared to be designed to convey the sense that Ehrlich is not isolated in opposing the bill.
MedChi, MHA and a group of doctors from Western Maryland who had been some of the most visible supporters of lawsuit reform endorsed the bill, saying it did not contain all of the reforms they wanted but was a good start and would keep doctors in business this year.
But individual doctors and representatives of the state societies for orthopedists and neurologists stood with Ehrlich yesterday to endorse the veto. A psychiatrist held his 4-year-old son, who wore a shirt reading: "Support a Lawyer: Become a Doctor." Delegates, senators, the lieutenant governor and the first lady flanked Ehrlich in front of the television cameras.
The orthopedists brought a giant cast, a 6-foot version of the kind that would help a broken ankle mend, that had been signed by hundreds of doctors in support of lawsuit reforms. In the middle of his speech, Ehrlich pulled out a felt-tipped pen and said he wanted to add his name.
"Maybe I should sign the Achilles heel," he said. One of the doctors helped point him to the right spot.
The doctors who joined Ehrlich yesterday said the General Assembly's measure would have little long-term impact on their premiums.
"This was a bill that was contrived by the trial lawyers and will create a super fund that will benefit the trial lawyers," said Dr. Michael Gloth, a geriatrician who spoke at the ceremony.
The bill passed by the Assembly would limit pain and suffering awards in wrongful-death cases at $800,000, require mediation before a malpractice suit could be filed, make a doctor's apology to a patient inadmissible in court and set up stricter standards for expert witnesses.
Two reforms Ehrlich has said he most wanted were a provision to allow payouts of malpractice awards over time and a rule to allow juries to be told when a victim's medical bills have been paid by another source, which he said would have a strong effect on how economic damages are calculated.
MedChi and MHA officials didn't directly criticize Ehrlich's veto yesterday but backed an override.
"Not to accept the progress that is represented in this bill would result in inaction, not more action, in Annapolis, and that's unacceptable," said MedChi Executive Director T. Michael Preston.
Other health care advocates continued their push for an override yesterday. Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, called an override essential, not only to keep doctors in Maryland, but also because the bill would fund higher payments to doctors through Medicaid, which he said would improve health care access for the poor.
Ehrlich repeated his promise that if legislators allow his veto to stand, he will include $30 million in next year's budget to stabilize malpractice rates and $18.5 million, matched by the federal government, to increase Medicaid reimbursements.
DeMarco said that funding would be insufficient and that Ehrlich's promise is dangerous because he didn't say what programs he would cut to pay for it.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who organized a rally in Annapolis yesterday to urge lawmakers to override the governor's vetoes of medical malpractice and other legislation, said a vote to sustain the malpractice veto would be the worst situation for Ehrlich politically because it would show that he was unable to solve a problem he spent months talking about.
If legislators override, Ehrlich will blame Democrats for raising taxes while benefiting politically because doctors will stay in the state, Duncan said.
Miller said the average 33 percent premium increase most Maryland doctors face this year makes the override a must. Sustaining the veto and working instead on the more stringent legal reform bill Ehrlich wants is a non-starter, Miller said.
"The governor knows that the chance of coming together on this right-wing bill ... are nil," Miller said.
Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Sumathi Reddy and M. William Salganik contributed to this article.
To read the governor's veto letter, go to www.baltimore sun.com/veto