The Maryland House of Delegates gave final legislative approval today to a bill that would abolish the controversial three-doctor panel that reviews workers' compensation claims of job-related illnesses.
Two of the physicians resigned from the board last year amid charges that its members were too closely aligned with industry.
The whopping 103-to-17 vote came just weeks after Gov. Harry Hughes appointed two new physicians to fill the vacancies caused by the resignations of Dr. James Frenkel and Dr. J. Howard Frantz. Both physicians had been under fire, mostly from labor unions that contended their consulting ties to business and industry made it impossible for them to fairly arbitrate claims of occupational diseases.
Today's vote was a major victory for organized labor, which had made the bill's passage a top priority this year, and labor's supporters in the General Assembly, who had been advocating that the board be abolished for four years.
The bill, which the Senate had approved earlier, now goes to Hughes for his signature. It would replace the part-time board of physicians with two new commissioners on the Worker's Compensation Commission. The two new nonphysician members would be allowed to solicit expert medical advice from a list of qualified advisers. To prevent the conflict charges that tainted the present board, no doctor can be hired as an adviser if he is employed by, or has any ties to, a firm whose employes may contract occupational diseases.
"The medical board was not serving the best interests of the workers," said Del. Helen L. Koss (D-Montgomery). Koss pointed out that Maryland was one of only five states with a separate part-time medical board hearing occupational disease cases. "This very peculiar arrangement in Maryland is not necessarily good."
Maryland's medical board was created in 1939, at a time when occupational disease claims were rare. Now, the number of those claims have skyrocketed, especially with recent medical discoveries linking asbestos fibers found in some plants with cancer.
A provision in the bill aimed at placating Senate opponents and Hughes says that if between now and June 1983, when the legislation is to take effect, the board makes substantial progress in clearing its backlog of hundreds of cases, next year's General Assembly can vote to spare the board.