Auto insurance reform opposed Companies, lawyers, doctors criticize governor's proposal; It 'has kitchen sink in it'; Glendening says bill would save residents millions in premiums


Doctors, lawyers and insurance companies joined yesterday to oppose Gov. Parris N. Glendening's auto insurance reform bill, a measure the governor says would save Marylanders millions of dollars in premiums annually.

In a hearing before two key House committees in Annapolis, each interest group found something in the bill to criticize.

Insurers said it could cost them huge sums. Attorneys said it wouldn't save much money. And physicians complained it would be a boondoggle.

"This bill has the kitchen sink in it," said Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist for the state medical society.

The governor's office argued that strong opposition by those who profit from the current system shows that the bill would save money for honest drivers, who the administration argues are paying premiums swollen by fraudulent and inflated claims.

"What does it say to you when the people who make money off the system don't like the bill?" said Steven B. Larsen, a lobbyist for the governor.

"It means they want the status quo. It's good for them. Unfortunately, it's not good for the consumer."

Baltimore City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes was more direct.

"The dollar bill drives everything," said Mr. Stukes, a Democrat who represents Baltimore's 6th District and served on a governor's commission that studied auto insurance last year.

The governor's bill is designed to reduce insurance premiums across Maryland but focuses particularly on Baltimore, where rates are two to three times higher than those in suburban and rural areas.

To help reduce costs, Mr. Glendening's bill would limit how much victims, their lawyers and health care providers could receive from an accident claim.

The measure would deny victims the opportunity to collect damages on the same accident from multiple sources.

For instance, under current law, a victim with $2,000 in medical bills can make an additional $4,000 on an accident by tapping his car insurance, his health insurance and the other driver's auto insurance, administration officials said.

The bill also is aimed at reducing costs by limiting payments in potentially fraudulent cases of sprains or strains, soft-tissue injuries that are hard to disprove. The measure seeks to reduce costs by allowing insurers to submit such claims to a panel of physicians for review.

Mr. Stukes said the problem of exaggerated claims is particularly severe in Baltimore, where, he said, some poor people view the state's insurance system as a lottery.

The governor's office estimates that these and other elements of the bill would significantly reduce insurance costs. To make sure companies pass the savings on to drivers, the bill would require them to reduce their rates by 12 percent by the beginning of next year or explain why they hadn't.

Insurers say they aren't convinced that the bill would create such savings and that they fear they would get stuck paying the difference.

Calvin M. Mahaney, president of the Brethren Mutual Insurance Co. in Hagerstown, said the rate change could cost his company $2.4 million in lost premiums. "Is that a risk that we can reasonably take?" he said.

Minor Carter, a lobbyist who represents the Maryland Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said the governor's cost-reduction estimate was not endorsed by an actuary and represents no more than a guess.

"We don't know that the guess is right," he said.

As for a panel reviewing soft-tissue damage, physicians said it would create a bureaucratic morass as people tried to define and categorize such injuries.

Doctors also said the panel would simply delay payments to victims.

Lawyers said the bill was based on a false premise and was doomed to failure.

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