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Ehrlich Budget Leaves Out Hospital Group

Association That Supported Override of Malpractice Veto Usually Receives $5 Million

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page B02

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday accused Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of cutting a $5 million state fund for hospital construction projects to retaliate against a hospital group that opposed his stance on medical malpractice legislation.

"The governor wanted to send them a message," said Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

The Maryland Hospital Association, which represents about 50 facilities statewide, supported the Democrat-led General Assembly when it voted this month to override Ehrlich's veto of the malpractice bill.

Ehrlich's capital budget, released Wednesday, did not include the $5 million fund administered by the hospital association that had been in every Maryland governor's budget for more than a decade, association officials said.

Ehrlich (R) decided to fund direct requests from hospitals this year, said his budget secretary, Chip DiPaula Jr. Those included two larger projects: $15 million for the University of Maryland Medical System and $10 million for the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

Pegeen Townsend, a lobbyist for the hospital association, said facilities have always been free to seek money directly from the governor. But the association, she said, still expected $5 million this year to divide among other smaller construction and renovation projects around the state. For years, the association has developed lists of recommended projects at the request of the General Assembly.

Seven such projects had been planned next year, ranging in cost from $100,000 to $1.1 million: at Calvert Memorial Hospital in Calvert County, Atlantic General Hospital in Worcester County, Civista Medical Center in Charles County, North Arundel Hospital in Anne Arundel County, Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health System in Montgomery County, Northwest Hospital Center in Baltimore County, and Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Townsend said she is hopeful the legislature will restore the funding. She declined to say why she thought the money was not included.

"I'm not going to speculate on that, but it is unusual," Townsend said.

The medical malpractice bill passed by the legislature included a short-term fund to curb doctors' malpractice insurance rates and several legal changes designed to hold down rates in the future.

The changes included a reduction in a cap on payouts for "pain and suffering" in wrongful death lawsuits. Lowering the cap was among the hospital association's priorities.

Ehrlich argued that the legal changes in the bill do not go far enough. The association had urged him to support the bill, which it called "progress."

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