ANNAPOLIS – A Senate panel is proposing to cap damages in medical malpractice cases where a patient dies and to freeze awards for pain and suffering in lawsuits against doctors and hospitals.
The Senate Special Commission on Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance said it hopes the five tort provisions it recommended Wednesday, along with work it did earlier on patient safety and insurance, will be hammered into legislation in time for any special session of the Maryland General Assembly.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, agree a special session is needed before Jan. 1, but disagree on the provisions of a bill. The General Assembly is scheduled to convene its regular session on Jan 12.
The medical malpractice problem is acute. Doctors rallied in the capital Wednesday before the Senate panel’s meeting to call attention to the fact that their premiums – up 33 percent – were also due Wednesday.
One doctor said he will close his practice Jan. 1 because he can no longer afford liability insurance.
The Senate task force recommended freezing the pain-and-suffering damage cap at $650,000 cap and reducing the cap in death cases from $1.6 million to $975,000.
It also proposed mandatory mediation before medical malpractice trials, sanctions against attorneys pressing frivolous cases and forbidding admission in court of any apology by a doctor.
The committee did not vote on the proposals, but a majority of the 12 members supported the recommendations.
“Yeah these aren’t perfect . . .” said Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore City. “Let us try these five recommendations. If they don’t work, let’s come back next year and try again.”
It is the second task force in two weeks to make recommendations for medical malpractice reforms.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s study panel released its proposals Nov. 24, including a provision to lower pain-and-suffering damage awards to $500,000.
The governor’s malpractice commission also proposed establishing a funding pool to help pay for rising insurance rates, but did not specify the source of the money. Ehrlich opposes a plan supported by the Senate panel to impose a 2 percent HMO tax.
Ehrlich’s task force also recommends limiting attorney’s fees, a stipulation not addressed by the Senate committee.
The two task forces concur on patient safety reforms, such as imposing a fine on hospitals that fail to report negligence and requiring the losing party to pay costs for a trial.
They also agree that insurance companies providing medical malpractice liability coverage be required to submit an annual report – however, they disagree on the recipient of that information.
The Senate task force wants information sent to the General Assembly, while the governor’s committee wants the Maryland Insurance Administration to have oversight.
But there is dissent even in the ranks of the Senate panel.
Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, said the task force’s proposals are premature because the committee hasn’t received the data it requested from Medical Mutual, the insurance company that covers more than 75 percent of Maryland physicians.
There is no guarantee that freezing the cap on pain-and-suffering damages will help curtail the increase in doctors’ insurance costs, she said.
“We don’t have the data to prove this is necessary,” Grosfeld said. “This is outrageous.”
Chairman Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said because the task force doesn’t know what effect the cap will have on escalating premiums, the commission is “shooting into the dark to a large extent.”
Nevertheless, he said he hoped the combination of the commission’s findings will resolve the crisis. He said the recommendations should be united into one bill, which he anticipates will be finished in time for a special session, if necessary.
Willard Edwards, president of MedChi, said she thought freezing the cap would mitigate the situation.
“I think the combination of all the points in this bill will help all of this,” she said.
Most players were optimistic a special session will soon be convened.
“My goal is obviously a special session this month,” Ehrlich said at the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday morning.
Delegate Charles Boutin, R-Harford, said he’s heard rumors a special session could convene toward the end of December or Jan. 10-11, just two days before the regular session begins.
“It’s no big deal for people to come in two days before,” Boutin said.
The problem with a special session in January, Boutin said, is that doctors’ insurance payments will be overdue by then. But, he said, the state could work out a deal between doctors and insurance companies to account for any new law.