ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich Wednesday proposed using money from the Maryland Health Insurance Plan to help pay for doctors’ escalating premiums, an alternative to using general funds or a tax proposed by top lawmakers.
The governor – who prefers using the general fund, but has failed to win support for that idea – unveiled his suggestion to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel. The two legislative leaders support lifting the 2 percent tax exemption on HMOs to help pay for increasing rates.
Ehrlich declined to reveal his funding formula in interviews after the meeting, however Busch released some details. The governor’s office declined to confirm the funding source.
The funding source continues to be the most controversial aspect of writing a medical malpractice bill, which legislators hope will prevent doctors from quitting under pressure to pay a 33 percent rise in premiums at the new year. The three leaders hope to solve the issue in a special session before the end of the year.
The governor has said a special session is only possible if the three leaders agree on the major provisions of new legislation, including the funding source.
But the speaker opposes the governor’s new proposal to use MHIP as the solution.
“We’re not taking money away that underwrites the poorest of the poor,” Busch said. “We’re not shifting that money out of there and taking insurance coverage away from the neediest Marylanders.”
According to its Web site, “MHIP is a state administered health insurance program for Maryland residents who do not have access to health insurance.”
Busch said the funding source must be new – not a present pool of money.
“If (Ehrlich) wants to come up with a new revenue source . . . that’s fine,” Busch said. But MHIP “is not a funding source – it’s an existing program.”
Yet Ehrlich opposes use of the HMO tax because it would tax poorer Marylanders.
But the speaker called that claim “ridiculous,” and added that he doesn’t see the Senate or the House “backing off the HMO tax.” Both chambers have crafted medical malpractice proposals – the House in a bill last session and the Senate in a task force that concluded last week.
“I think where we are is an HMO tax for a funding source and a combination of the House bill and the Senate bill,” Busch said.
Miller was unavailable for comment.
Despite disagreement on the funding source, Ehrlich said he, Miller and Busch made “a lot of progress on tort reform issues” and was confident that there was little or no controversy on patient safety reforms.
The governor said he remains optimistic that a special session will be convened by the end of the year, but added that it’s “impossible to specify a date.”
Busch said a special session must occur by Dec. 17 or the issue won’t be resolved until regular session, which begins Jan. 12.
Delegate Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery, gave meeting the speaker’s deadline a 50 percent chance.
Delegate Charles Boutin, R-Harford, said a special session could occur Jan. 10-11, just two days before the regular session.
The problem with a special session in January, Boutin said, is that doctors’ insurance payments will be overdue by then.
Busch said it is possible that Medical Mutual – the company that insures 75 percent of Maryland physicians – would prolong the “courtesy period to the end of January” in anticipation of a funding source.
But Medical Mutual has no intention of extending the Jan. 1 deadline, said company spokesman John Franklin.
According to an e-mail from Franklin, “Medical Mutual must maintain the existing timetable for physician payments on their medical malpractice insurance coverage” to ensure doctors working on New Year’s Day will be covered.
Doctors are growing increasingly frustrated that legislators are moving slowly – “like molasses in winter” – to resolve the issue. Some of them said they won’t pay their premiums by Jan. 1, and others are shutting down their practices altogether.
“We will not sit back and allow this to occur,” Karl Riggle, a Washington County surgeon said Dec. 1. “The stakes are too great. We plan to continue making our appeal, loud and clear, in the best interests of the citizens of this state.”