Groups representing Maryland's doctors and hospitals urged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to support the General Assembly's bill aimed at curbing physicians' soaring insurance costs and said they would back Democratic efforts to override the governor's promised veto.
The joint announcement was a major blow for Ehrlich (R), who for months courted doctors as allies in the medical malpractice fight and has vowed to veto a compromise bill passed by the legislature last week during a special session that he called.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"The legislation, as a package, taken as a whole, makes progress," said T. Michael Preston, executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society, who appeared alongside representatives of the Maryland Hospital Association at an afternoon news conference. "This is what we can achieve."
The doctors group, which represents more than 7,000 Maryland physicians, and the hospital group, which represents about 50 facilities, said they agree with Ehrlich that the bill should have included more changes affecting malpractice lawsuits, which doctors blame for their rising insurance rates.
But they said the legislation includes many welcome provisions, including establishment of a state fund that would hold doctors' insurance increases to 5 percent this year. Without state intervention, doctors insured by the state's largest carrier face an average 33 percent increase.
Cal Pierson, president of the hospital association, said the two groups had carefully studied the bill and determined that "stopping the bleeding" was preferable to starting debate anew, a course that would be prompted by Ehrlich's veto.
The two groups took no position on Democrats' plan to pay for the doctors' relief fund with a tax on HMO premiums, a provision that is central to Ehrlich's opposition.
Ehrlich told reporters yesterday that he considers the legislature's bill "lighter than air" and said an analysis he will soon make public will show that legal changes in the bill would have a negligible effect on doctors' insurance rates in the future.
"I am not going to claim a phony victory," he said.
Ehrlich said that if his veto stands, he would provide short-term relief to doctors in the form of tax credits. And Ehrlich said he also intends to boost Medicaid rates next year, which would help doctors in certain specialties who participate in the state's health insurance program for the poor.
Democrats heralded the support of the hospitals and doctors for the legislation, which was cobbled together from competing bills passed during the special session by the Senate and House of Delegates.
"Their support shows that the General Assembly did the right thing," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the Senate's lead negotiator on the bill. "It dramatically undercuts the governor's position. . . . He's trying to protect the HMOs at the expense of the state, and I think that's a tremendous mistake."
Ehrlich has said he will veto the bill in coming days. Lawmakers probably will try to override his veto Tuesday, the day before the start of their regular session, when votes already are scheduled on several other bills Ehrlich rejected last year.
Overriding a governor's veto requires three-fifths votes from the House and Senate. Both chambers passed the malpractice bill by large enough margins last week to meet that threshold, though Ehrlich has said he will try to persuade some lawmakers to change their positions.
Among the provisions praised by the doctors and hospitals yesterday is a reduction in a cap on damages available for "pain and suffering" in wrongful death cases. The legislature's bill would reduce the cap of about $1.6 million to $812,500. Ehrlich had sought to lower the cap to $650,000.
Representatives of the two groups praised other changes in the bill, including a measure that would affect how patients' past medical expenses are calculated when determining jury awards and settlements in malpractice cases.
The groups also cited several provisions backed by Ehrlich that they would have liked to see in the legislation, including curbs on payouts for future medical expenses and lost wages.
Preston said the groups would work to secure "more robust" changes in the regular session of the legislature. He also praised Ehrlich for drawing attention to the issue and calling the legislature into session to address it.
Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), the Senate's only physician, expressed disappointment with the doctor and hospital groups' decision but said he did not think it would alter the course of the debate. "Since I think that the votes are there to override, I don't think this will make much difference," Harris said.
Harris said he believes that the bill passed by the legislature "is not anywhere near what the medical community really needs to solve this crisis in the long term."