Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has drafted legislation aimed at averting a financial crisis for Maryland doctors who will soon face their second double-digit increase in malpractice insurance rates.
Ehrlich (R) put the finishing touches on the bill during a 20-hour flight home from China on Friday and delivered a copy late yesterday to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). The governor's proposal caps off a summer-long campaign for malpractice reform and sets the stage for a possible special legislative session on the politically charged issue.
The governor called his approach a "compromise plan" but said he was uncertain how it will be received by House and Senate leaders. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) have been unified in calling for action but divided on how to proceed.
Miller said yesterday that the governor has not shared a copy of the bill with him, but he predicted that the plan would face a tough road unless Ehrlich breaks from his previous proposals, which placed much of the burden of reform on trial lawyers.
"Even if he has a bill, it doesn't mean we're going to do anything," Miller said. "If it's this continued right-wing agenda, there's no reason to even meet."
Finding common ground has become increasingly urgent with the approach of Nov. 1, the day the state's largest malpractice insurer is expected to send out its first bills for the coming year. Those bills, from the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, will not only incorporate last year's 28 percent rate increase, but also a recently approved 33 percent increase.
Doctors have pressed lawmakers to intervene immediately, predicting that many of those who practice such high-risk specialties as obstetrics will be forced out of business because they won't be able to afford insurance.
Neither Ehrlich nor Busch released copies of the administration bill yesterday, but the governor said in an interview Friday that it includes a provision he had originally opposed: creating a special state fund to offset the cost of the looming rate increase.
A bailout "is not my preferred option," Ehrlich said. "However, if I can get buy-in from all parties that this is the basis for a comprehensive solution, we would certainly entertain the idea of a fund."
The fund proposal has been politically ticklish for the governor because raising the money could require a tax increase. He campaigned on a "no new taxes" agenda and has said repeatedly that Marylanders are overtaxed. Ehrlich said the revenue source for the fund is something "we have purposely left in nebulous terms -- left blank. That's still to be negotiated."
Ehrlich and Busch met briefly yesterday to discuss the logistics of voting on the bill during a special session sometime before Christmas. Both men predicted that the toughest obstacle to doing that would come from Senate leaders, who have resisted any reform plan that curbs the rights of malpractice victims to sue their doctors.
Miller said any successful solution will place an equal burden on the medical profession to weed out bad doctors and on the insurance companies to justify raising rates.