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Ehrlich Foresees Difficulty With Veto

Malpractice Bill Passed Easily

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) predicted that he will have trouble preventing Democratic lawmakers from securing final passage of their plan to address the state's malpractice insurance crisis, even though he intends to veto it next week.

Democrats overcame strong Republican resistance and passed a compromise bill in the predawn hours yesterday with margins large enough to fend off Ehrlich's threatened veto -- completing the primary mission of the state's first special legislative session in 12 years.

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As lawmakers dropped confetti on the House floor to celebrate the close of the two-day session, the governor declared the hastily called convention a washout.

"The first attempt at comprehensive reform failed," Ehrlich said. "It's going to be difficult to sustain the veto, but we're going to try."

Ehrlich described the Democrats' initiative as too light on the legal reforms he sought and said it was unacceptable because it would levy a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums to finance short-term rate relief for doctors.

But in forging ahead with a veto, the governor appeared to be losing the support of some doctors who invested significant muscle in his campaign for a malpractice insurance overhaul.

As health care advocates pored over the 79-page bill, which was not handed out to lawmakers until 2:30 a.m., they expressed support for a key component offering immediate relief from an average 33 percent insurance rate increase set to take effect New Year's Day for most Maryland doctors.

Watching the vote from the gallery were white-coated surgeons, several of whom said they were headed for an awkward political fix.

After spending the better part of 2004 rallying behind Ehrlich in his push for a solution to rising malpractice insurance rates, they found themselves disagreeing with the governor's plans for a veto.

"I really hope, in the spirit of compromise, he swallows his pride and signs the bill," said Mark Seigel, a Montgomery County obstetrician-gynecologist and past president of the Maryland State Medical Society.

"Half a loaf is better than nothing," said Seigel, a registered Republican who said he voted for Ehrlich in 2002. "I would be very disappointed if the governor vetoes this bill."

Ann Burke, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Silver Spring, said she could not imagine why Ehrlich would veto the bill after all it took to get it passed.

"It's very disappointing, because I feel we as the physician community did exactly what he asked us to do," Burke said. "We got ourselves organized. We got ourselves mobilized. . . . We did everything that he asked us to do, and now it looks like he's going to stand us up at the altar."

Ehrlich's nine-month push for medical malpractice legislation came to a head this week when he summoned the General Assembly into a rare special session over objections from Democrats, who control both chambers. Never in recent memory had a governor called such a session without having an agreement in hand. In this case, there were rifts not only with the governor, but between House and Senate leaders.


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