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Md. Malpractice Victims Testify Against Changes

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page B04

College sophomore Michael Osgood came down with a cold and a sore throat shortly after coming home for Christmas in 2002. After a brief exam, a doctor prescribed several drugs for the engineering major, including 80-milligram tablets of OxyContin. Osgood, 19, went into cardiac arrest and soon was dead.

"He was my best friend, my buddy, my fishing companion," George W. Osgood of Upper Marlboro yesterday told a panel of Maryland lawmakers studying medical malpractice insurance and litigation in the state. "My wife and I will never overcome the death of our son."

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Michael Osgood's death, from a drug that his father said never should have been prescribed for his son's condition, was among more than a dozen stories from injured patients and their families that gripped senators during a public hearing.

The loudest voices in the state's debate over malpractice litigation have been those of doctors and lawyers, arguing over whether to curb the jury awards and settlements that are blamed for driving up insurance costs. But victims shared the spotlight at yesterday's hearing, cautioning against changes that would limit their legal rights.

"It's not like you get some windfall; you don't win a lottery," said Bonnie McGurn of Davidsonville, who testified that her 12-year-old son, Kevin, had cerebral palsy as a result of a medical error during his birth. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum, but the consequences will be with the family members for the rest of their lives, she said.

"It's been a battle for us," McGurn said as Kevin sat in a wheelchair in the audience.

The hearing attracted a stream of doctors and hospital administrators, who testified that rising malpractice insurance rates are discouraging young people from going into the profession and causing doctors, particularly those in high-risk specialties, to retire prematurely. Their departure, several doctors argued, could hurt patients, as well.

The divergent views underscored the difficult task facing lawmakers, many of whom would like to call a special session of the General Assembly to head off another round of rate increases scheduled to take effect in January.

Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, which provides coverage to more than three-fourths of the state's physicians in private practice, is raising rates by 33 percent next year, after a 28 percent increase this year.

The insurance firm declined to respond to some questions that the special Senate panel submitted in writing before yesterday's hearing, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who called the company's response "arrogant, unresponsive and unacceptable."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has proposed creating a state fund that effectively would allow Med Mutual and other insurers to freeze their rates.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) have said such a fund should be tied to more substantive reforms in the legal system and new steps to ensure patients' safety.

There is no consensus, however, on what those steps should be.

Several family members of victims who spoke yesterday criticized an approach pushed by Ehrlich last session that would have limited payouts to plaintiffs in malpractice cases, including a reduced cap on awards for damages paid for "pain and suffering."

"People need to be accountable and usually . . . that means in the pocket, where it hurts," said Marie Owens of Wicomico County, who offered testimony about her brother, Melvin, 24, who cannot speak or walk because of a medical error at birth, she said.

Osgood said he recently won a $950,000 settlement from the insurance carrier of the doctor involved in the OxyContin death of his son, who would have turned 21 today. He said the Maryland Board of Physicians has not taken disciplinary action against the doctor.


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