Doctors Wooed in Malpractice Insurance Fight
Ehrlich Reaches Out to Physicians; Democrats Decry Governor's Approach
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page B01
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) waded into a crowd of more than 200 restless doctors on a recent evening and issued a call to arms: Your help is desperately needed in Annapolis, he said, to persuade "a tough legislature" to confront rising medical malpractice insurance rates.
"I know it's a pain. I know it's horrible. It's not why you went to medical school," Ehrlich told the gathering at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "But you have the ultimate resolution of this issue in your hands."
The hour-long visit was part of a flurry of recent appearances by Ehrlich, all designed to shine a bright light on his battle with lawmakers over how to head off a potential health care crisis. Last week, Ehrlich called it "the number one issue in Maryland right now."
Yet, for all the attention he has generated, Ehrlich faces widespread skepticism among Democrats and even some doctors over whether he is serious about finding a workable solution.
The governor already has rejected one costly proposal that would slow malpractice insurance increases right away. He is pushing instead for a longer-term approach that was discarded by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in the past legislative session.
Since coming to office 18 months ago, the state's first elected Republican governor in a generation has confounded his critics by turning defeats into victories. His failure to win approval for slot machine gambling, for instance, has become ammunition against the Democrats he blames for thwarting his plan.
The debate over doctors' insurance "has all the hallmarks of that strategy," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which has jurisdiction over medical malpractice legislation. "I don't want to foreclose the possibility that something can be worked out, but it's mostly rhetoric from the administration and not much work."
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, dismissed the Democrats' talk as "whining" and said the governor is "dead serious" about seeing a bill passed before more Maryland doctors are forced from the profession.
The state's largest malpractice insurer, Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, raised premiums by 28 percent for this year. The company has proposed a 41 percent increase for next year. A growing number of doctors, particularly those in such high-risk specialties as obstetrics, say rate increases are making it too costly to practice.
Ehrlich recently floated the idea of a special legislative session on the issue before the General Assembly reconvenes in January, but aides acknowledge that there is no consensus on how to proceed. In the past, Ehrlich has called for tighter caps on payouts to people harmed by medical mistakes, while Democrats generally have advocated insurance reforms and better policing of the medical profession.
The three interest groups pitted against one another in the debate -- doctors, trial lawyers and insurance companies -- said last month that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough.
During a meeting at the State House, representatives of the three groups pitched a plan to Ehrlich that would have allowed Med Mutual and other insurers to freeze their rates by setting up a state-run reinsurance fund. The state, in effect, would cover a portion of the companies' malpractice payouts.
T. Michael Preston, executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society, said the idea represented a rare instance in which all parties actually agreed on something. "That was an important and unusual feature of it," he said.
Ehrlich emerged cool to the idea, which, by one estimate, could cost the state as much $50 million a year. During his appearance before doctors at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Ehrlich recounted his reaction to seeing trial lawyers and insurance executives in the same meeting: "I reached for my wallet," he said to laughter. "That's a bad approach, and it's been rejected."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company