Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed solution to skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates got a frigid reception yesterday from legislative leaders, who accused the governor of playing hardball politics with a health care crisis.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the governor's position is too extreme to justify bringing the legislature to Annapolis before January to intervene on behalf of doctors.
"At this point, the sides are so far apart, a special session is out of the question," Miller said. "For this to move forward, the governor would have to say publicly that this bill was a mistake, that this was a bill to appease his Republican friends."
Ehrlich (R) delivered the proposed legislation to House and Senate leaders Monday night, saying it would resolve concerns that fast-rising malpractice insurance rates could force some doctors, especially those in such high-risk specialties as obstetrics, to shut down their practices.
For more than a year, Ehrlich has been pushing for changes, but in a manner that has found little traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The governor has taken the side of doctors and insurance executives, who blame the rate increases on big jury awards sought by trial lawyers. And the proposal he delivered Monday includes an array of limitations on victims who seek to sue doctors for malpractice.
Miller, a lawyer, said yesterday that the governor's position has been taken from a national Republican Party playbook and went far beyond what the governor had proposed at a recent meeting with top lawmakers. "This is very conservative, designed to help big corporations and big HMOs, and it's not going to fly," Miller said.
Ehrlich returned fire in a late afternoon news conference, saying: "That's not the kind of attitude I'm looking for. Everybody needs to come to the table in good faith."
At the same time, Ehrlich did not take a hard line, saying his proposal represented more of a negotiating posture than a finished product. "You'll note it has 'draft' stamped twice on every page," he said.
The dynamics of the dispute resemble closely those that pitted Ehrlich against House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) over the administration's proposal to legalize slot machines, except that this time it is Miller who is at odds with the governor.
Yesterday, Busch said he hopes that dynamic does not derail an effort to resolve the insurance mess in time to help doctors who, he said, could be put out of business by the recent rate increases.
"It's too important an issue for us not to address," Busch said.
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.
Busch agreed with Miller that the governor's proposal was considerably tougher on lawyers than either of them had anticipated. And he expressed disappointment that Ehrlich failed to identify a source of money for a special state fund to offset the cost of the looming rate increase.
Busch said it would be up to the governor to propose a source of revenue for the bailout, and he noted that legislative leaders have expressed support for a plan to subject HMOs to a 2 percent premium tax.
The governor said he was not ready to reveal his preferred source of revenue, but added that it "would not involve a tax."