ANNAPOLIS – If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich calls a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to discuss medical malpractice, it would be the first such meeting in a dozen years.
Ehrlich is facing pressure to resolve the controversy before January, when doctors’ insurance rates will increase by 33 percent, following a 28 percent hike last year.
Maryland doctors are confronting several other malpractice insurance problems, including an increasing cap on pain-and-suffering damages and unlimited attorneys’ fees.
The last time the Maryland Legislature met for a special session was Nov. 18, 1992, to discuss the state’s budget. It also met for a special session in April of that year for the same reason.
Ehrlich, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, have repeatedly said a special session on medical malpractice is imminent, but they disagree on the details of a new bill. Each has established task forces to examine the issue.
If Ehrlich calls a special session, a bill will most likely be in place before it begins, as has been the case in the past, said a state legislative expert.
“There is an agreement worked out ahead of time, which doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked as it goes through,” said Mike Volk, legislation and committee support coordinator for Legislative Services. “The general idea is to have something planned out ahead of time, so they’re not wasting their time and energy.”
Ehrlich and Busch favor a long-term solution that includes placing a hard cap on pain-and-suffering damages. Last year, the Legislature rejected a malpractice bill, which called for a $500,000 cap on these awards.
Ehrlich said a long-term solution is necessary because he doesn’t want to just throw money at the problem.
“I want a bill now that’s going to give relief to this premium increase now,” he said to a group of doctors at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore last month. “We need to fix the problem – not just fund it – so it’s a lasting fix.”
Miller opposes a hard cap, but favors a freeze of insurance premiums.
Maryland malpractice law now allows victims to receive a maximum of $650,000 in pain-and-suffering damages, with that amount increasing by $15,000 every Oct. 1 to keep up with inflation.
Some doctors are so concerned about the mounting problems that they’ve threatened to strike, but delayed to allow a special session to be organized.
Nicholas G. Manis, a lobbyist for Manis, Canning and Associates, which represents companies such as Health South and Pfizer, said medical malpractice in Maryland “seems like a looming crisis” that needs a permanent solution, regardless of whether it comes about in a special or regular session.
Governors have convened special sessions less frequently since 1976. While eight have occurred in the 28 years since then, 22 took place during the same span from 1947 through 1975.
But the General Assembly usually met for 60 days instead of 90 then.
“My guess is that since the Legislature didn’t meet for 90 days until the 1960’s, they weren’t going to be around enough to solve immediate issues,” said Volk. “The view today may be that we can wait until the (regular) session.”
According to Maryland law, a special session may not exceed 30 days. Of the eight held since 1976, six lasted one or two days, including both in 1992.
If this Legislature meets before January, the session should also last only one or two days, said Karl S. Aro, Legislative Services executive director.
He said a “full blown” special session costs about $45,000 per day, but shorter ones cost about $24,000 because most government offices don’t need full staffs for the short period.
Nevertheless, “the idea is to get in and out as quickly as you can, but not to railroad it or anything,” Aro said.
Because these meetings cost time and money, Volk said it’s practical to introduce additional bills on a variety of topics, but legislators try to finish as swiftly as possible.
By law, the governor has the power to call a special session, but only the Assembly can adjourn it. The governor would be forced to convene the Legislature if a majority of the members of both chambers petition to do so and agree on a date.
Volk said he can’t recall that happening, but said the provision is necessary in the event the governor is reluctant to call a special session.
The first special session in Maryland was in April 1792. There have been 56 since the Legislature began holding regular sessions in 1777.
Capital News Service reporter Joseph Bacchus contributed to this story.