An increasingly partisan battle in Annapolis over how to keep rising insurance rates from driving Maryland doctors out of business turned ugly yesterday as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. convened the first meeting of the panel he appointed to head off a health care crisis.
Democratic leaders from both houses of the General Assembly blasted Ehrlich (R), saying he formed the 19-member task force without their input and filled it with doctors and insurance executives partial to his approach.
"If the governor and his right-wing staff want to take off their Republican hats for one minute and find a real solution, and avoid partisanship and name-calling, there are solutions to this problem," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "But this task force is stacked. It's biased. It's not even close to being objective. It's embarrassing."
Ehrlich responded with his own broadside, accusing Miller -- a trial lawyer -- of being uncooperative and politicizing the issue.
The sharp partisan exchange dulled expectations that this latest effort by Ehrlich would bring Maryland closer to resolving a growing problem.
"It's a tough legislature," Ehrlich said later in the evening during an hour-long appearance before doctors at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "I feel as though I've been trying to run against a train. But you know what? I have a hard head."
Ehrlich urged the 200 medical professionals to prod legislators into action and make them aware of the problem. Insurance costs increased 28 percent last year and could rise 40 percent at the end of this year.
Disagreement over how to reduce those costs has put three of the state's most powerful constituencies at odds. Doctors and insurance executives, backed by Ehrlich, have been calling for tougher caps on the payouts sought by trial lawyers for people allegedly harmed by medical mistakes. The lawyers, who are supported by Miller and other Senate leaders, have looked for insurance reforms to help ease the problem and have called on doctors to do a better job of policing their profession.
On the fringes of the debate have been the victims of medical mistakes, who have argued against any solution that is not keyed toward making doctors more accountable for their mistakes. At a hastily arranged news conference yesterday, four of those malpractice victims complained that their interests were not being served by Ehrlich's task force.
Mark Cohen of Baltimore said his 2-year-old daughter died late last year after receiving a lethally high dose of potassium through an intravenous drip. She had just been successfully treated for a brain tumor, Cohen said.
"We all want a voice in this so-called medical malpractice crisis," he said.
As Ehrlich addressed the task force members for the first time yesterday, he disputed the notion that the group he selected is skewed.
"There is no predetermined outcome," he said. "All the stakeholders need to be involved. All the stakeholders have been invited. And to the extent any group wants to play politics with this crisis, there's the door. Go."
Of the task force members who attended yesterday, eight are medical professionals, two are insurance officials and one is a trial lawyer. The at-large member of the group, Maxine Adler, was previously an insurance industry lobbyist. Ehrlich staffers said two more trial lawyers had been invited to participate but declined.
Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) were asked to appoint two lawmakers each to the panel. Only Busch chose to, sending Del. Ann Marie Doory (D-Baltimore), a lawyer, to yesterday's meeting. Busch's second appointee, Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), also a lawyer, is a military reservist who has been called to active duty.
Miller said yesterday that he decided not to appoint anyone because the Senate already has a group studying the issue and "it became apparent early on that the persons in charge of this from Ehrlich's staff were not interested in a solution as much as they were looking to make political hay out of a very difficult situation."
Raymond G. Thieme Jr., a retired state appellate judge who chairs Ehrlich's task force, said the political back-and-forth is an unfortunate reality of the fight.
"I don't know how you can keep politics out," he said.
Still, Thieme added, the task force can be effective even without the blessing of legislative leaders. "What else can we do?" he asked. "Pack up and go home?"