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Some See Subpoenas as a Slippery Slope

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page PG15

To subpoena or not to subpoena?

That was the question dividing House and Senate leaders in Annapolis this week, as an infuriated Sen. Brian E. Frosh tried to recover from the snub he had received at the hands of Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland.

Frosh (D-Montgomery) heads the Senate task force that is seeking a solution to the malpractice insurance crisis that threatens to force doctors out of business in Maryland. He had asked Med Mutual, the company that provides coverage to more than three-fourths of the state's physicians, to submit a detailed explanation of why it wanted to increase rates by 40 percent this year.

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Md. Legislature

The insurance firm declined. Frosh called the company's response "arrogant, unresponsive and unacceptable," and announced that he intended to subpoena the company's internal records.

To do that, however, he needed backing from the Legislative Policy Committee, which is made up of leaders from both houses. To date, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has refused to convene the committee and has expressed strong resistance to granting Frosh's request to compel testimony with a subpoena.

"It's something we ought to look at only as a tool of last resort," Busch said.

Frosh said he was baffled at the reaction. Understanding why Med Mutual wants the state to approve dramatic increases in its rates cuts to the heart of the malpractice crisis, he said.

"Before we haul off and start changing the law, the legislature has some obligation to start doing some due diligence to see if their request for an increase is really based on solid information," Frosh said.

Med Mutual's refusal to meet that request, Frosh said, raises all kinds of suspicions in his mind.

"I was much more confident about the need to take steps to address the ballooning costs before they refused to give us the information," Frosh said. "Now it makes me wonder what's really going on."

Busch said, on that point, that he agrees with Frosh -- Med Mutual should have provided the answers.

"I think Med Mutual made a mistake," Busch said. "When you reject a legislative panel, it indicates you have something to hide."

But he does not believe the legislature needs to fire off a subpoena to get those answers. That, he said, could set a precedent that no one wants. Before long, he said, lawmakers could be requesting subpoenas for anything and everything.

"Once we open that door, when does it stop?" Busch asked. "The legislature has plenty of power to deal with Med Mutual or any other group. If they don't come to Annapolis, Senator Frosh can certainly submit legislation that can get their attention. He still has options."

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