Governor Calls for Special Legislative Session
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; 12:48 PM
An exodus of doctors from Maryland caused by skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates is a crisis that needs an immediate solution, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared at a news conference this morning.
Flanked by a half-dozen doctors in white coats and scrubs from the Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Ehrlich called for a special summer meeting of the legislature to address a looming 40 percent rate increase by the insurance company that covers most Maryland's doctors.
"In my view, the legislature needs to act now," Ehrlich said. "They need to sit down and work this out now. The crisis is affecting citizens now. There needs to be a special session now."
Despite his call for a special session, officials said it would not happen unless the governor and legislators agree on a solution ahead of time.
Maryland joins dozens of other states and the District in trying to respond to the dilemma posed by rising malpractice insurance rates, which are being blamed on a mounting number of lawsuits and costly judgments for patients who have bad outcomes.
Three powerful political constituencies -- doctors, insurance companies and trial lawyers -- have been locked in conflict over how best to resolve the crisis.
The Maryland Senate, which is led by attorney Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), has opposed any solution that involves further capping the amount plaintiffs can seek at trial -- Ehrlich's proposed solution.
Trial lawyers have argued that the ability to sue is the most effective way to hold doctors accountable for costly mistakes. Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery), an attorney who chairs a Senate task force studying the issue, has said in past interviews that he has seen evidence showing that insurance reform, not liability caps, is the most effective way to drive rates down.
During the legislative session that ended in April, the committee Frosh chairs voted down Ehrlich's proposal, calling it "a bad bill" that "wouldn't have significant impact on malpractice rates" but would be "really punitive to the victims of malpractice."
Ehrlich, meanwhile, has insisted the solution include those new caps because he believes many lawyers are chasing money, not justice, in the courtroom. He introduced two doctors at this morning's event who urged the legislature to act fast.
One of them, obstetrician Carol Ritter, said the political deadlock has already meant that after 20 years in practice in Towson, she had to take down her shingle. In one year, Ritter said her insurance premiums rose from $60,000 to $120,000, meaning 85 percent of her office revenues would be going just to paying her insurance bill.
"There were many tears, many tissue boxes," she said of shuttering her practice. "But no matter how much you love your job, no one would work under these conditions."
At the press conference, Ehrlich named his own task force to study the issue, and bring him a solution no later than November, but sooner if at all possible. He said the bill he submitted to the legislature earlier this year will be the starting point for their work.
"If we think we can get something done, we will work 24/7," the governor said. "That's how important it is."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company