Lawmakers override veto on reform bill

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller thanked Sen. Brian E. Frosh (center) for his help in organizing the veto override.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller thanked Sen. Brian E. Frosh (center) for his help in organizing the veto override. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay)
The Maryland General Assembly voted yesterday to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a medical malpractice reform bill, rebuffing an intense lobbying effort by the governor and setting a tense partisan tone for the 90-day session that begins today.

Democrats praised themselves for bridging divides between the House and Senate to craft a solution to the malpractice crisis. The legislation, which now becomes law, limits increases in doctors' malpractice insurance premiums and, to subsidize rates, subjects HMOs to a tax now paid by other health insurers.

"In my heart of hearts, I know the governor is upstairs thanking someone above that we overrode the veto, because we solved a major problem for him," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.

Ehrlich said he was "disappointed" in yesterday's outcome and called the decision a "lost opportunity" to develop a more lasting health care solution.

"A superfund for trial lawyers has been created, and I suspect that was the goal," the governor said, in an apparent reference to the bill's subsidy of insurance costs without some tort reform provisions he sought. "If the goal here is to send a signal to the rest of the country that Maryland is serious about protecting its medical providers, I think we failed."

Ehrlich said Assembly leaders promised him they would use the legislation as a starting point for more comprehensive legal reforms, which he said he would introduce in the coming weeks. "I suspect it's going to be real difficult, but we'll see how serious they are," he said.

Recessing after they adopted a compromise bill a few days after Christmas, lawmakers returned to the special session yesterday to consider overrides of the malpractice veto and 18 other bills from the 2004 session rejected by the governor.

As expected, the legislators allowed the governor's vetoes of two other high-profile bills to stand - legislation that would have limited university tuition increases to 5 percent a year for three years and that would have established a $10.50 per hour "living wage" for employees working for state contractors.

The tuition bill contained a temporary 10 percent increase in the corporate income tax, which Ehrlich and business groups opposed. Miller had indicated the bill would not survive in the Senate, so the measure failed without a vote by delegates, allowing conservative Democrats in swing districts to avoid casting a risky but useless vote in favor of higher taxes.

Last week, Ehrlich promised a 5.7 percent increase in university system funding, which won him votes to sustain the veto.

Still, the House and the Senate turned aside six of his vetoes in all, drawing protests from Republicans who accused Democrats of calculating to embarrass the state's first GOP governor in more than 30 years.

"We had not seen one single bill overridden in the previous administration" of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said House minority whip Anthony J. O'Donnell. "It's a bad way to do business."

The outcome of the malpractice vote was uncertain into the afternoon, and the House of Delegates delayed voting so Democrats could corral the votes they needed.

Finally, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, arrived at his desk. He had been shuttled to Annapolis from the Newark, N.J., airport after cutting short a visit to Israel so he could vote for the override.

The legislation passed in the House on an 85-50 vote, the exact number of votes needed to reinstate the legislation.

"I'm a nice Democratic boy," Rosenberg said, describing his daylong return from the Middle East, where he was on the same tour as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "All I did today was sit and press one button."

The Senate overrode the malpractice bill on a 33-13 tally, four votes above the required three-fifths supermajority. Two moderate Democratic senators changed their votes from two weeks ago and opposed the bill yesterday: Roy P. Dyson of Southern Maryland and John C. Astle of Annapolis. Astle was one of three Anne Arundel senators targeted in GOP advertisements that asked voters to contact their lawmakers and urge them to reject new taxes.

Several Democratic delegates also abandoned their support of the bill yesterday, including Clarence Davis, Marshall T. Goodwin and Jill P. Carter, all of Baltimore, and Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick of Baltimore County.

Carter, an attorney, called the legislation "a terrible bill" that did not contain enough restrictions and changes to insurance companies. Minnick said he changed his vote because "my e-mails were running 10-1 in favor of no HMO tax."

Ehrlich canceled appointments in the afternoon in a last-minute attempt to cajole House Democrats into voting to sustain his malpractice veto. When the final tally showed 85 votes in the House chamber, Ehrlich's chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, standing on tiptoe to peer through the windows of the second-floor gallery, cursed softly to himself and walked away.

Ehrlich had rejected the legislation because he said it did not contain sufficient limits on jury awards in lawsuits. He also opposed a repeal of the HMO tax exemption, saying it would burden working families. "It's the status-quo Annapolis solution," Ehrlich said. "You got a problem, throw money at it."

Democratic lawmakers said it was not certain HMOs would pass the tax on to consumers. "The vast bulk of people who have HMOs are not low-income people," said Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat. Even if the tax were passed on, it would cost families less than 40 cents a month to solve the malpractice problem, Hurson said.

While generally favoring the legislation, doctors and hospitals are waiting to see how relief will arrive. Doctors have already made their first-quarter insurance bill payments, which were 33 percent higher than a year ago, and don't know whether they will receive rebates.

MedChi Executive Director T. Michael Preston said it is imperative that the Maryland Insurance Administration work quickly to develop a mechanism that provides them relief. "That conversation needs to begin tomorrow," Preston said.

The Assembly also voted to override Ehrlich vetoes of these bills, which now become law:

  • Open meetings: The bill guarantees that any person may file a complaint in Circuit Court alleging that a public body violated the open meetings act. It is a response to a Howard County court ruling that only a person adversely affected by a public body's failure to follow that law may sue.

  • Elder care: The bill places limits on a program that allows HMO-like "community care organizations" to use state funds to care for the elderly and disabled in settings other than nursing homes. The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, said seniors prefer community care but the state should try the idea as a pilot program before implementing it statewide.

  • Equal pay commission: The bill establishes a commission to study disparities between the pay of men and women and of whites and minorities. In his veto message, Ehrlich said the state is already governed by "equal pay for equal work" laws and has received no complaints of violations in a decade.

    Ehrlich and the Assembly now look ahead to the regular session, although neither the governor nor legislative leaders have said what they hope to accomplish. With partisanship at an all-time high, battles over the budget, slot machines, stem cell research and other hot-button issues are likely to rage until the 2006 election.

    Ehrlich insists he will stick to principles and change the culture of Annapolis. Democratic lawmakers say they are emboldened by their cooperation on medical malpractice.

    "Through all of this trauma of split government, the legislature has stood up and made sure K-12 education is fully funded, that tuition rates don't keep going up the way they have, that doctors remain in the state and that quality health care is available for all Marylanders," Busch said.

    Sun staff writers Ivan Penn and Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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