ANNAPOLIS – Doctors could get quick relief from medical malpractice insurance costs with the Maryland General Assembly’s vote late Tuesday to override the governor’s veto of a special liability reform bill.
The Senate voted 31-15 to overturn the one-day old veto of the bill by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who opposed its creation of a 2 percent HMO tax to provide funds to buy down doctor’s premiums, which rose 33 percent at the beginning of the month.
The House of Delegates narrowly voted earlier Tuesday to reinstate the bill. The House needed – and got – exactly 85 votes. Another 50 delegates supported the governor’s veto. Two delegates did not vote and four were absent.
“We’re getting there, but more needs to be done,” said Hagerstown physician Karl P. Riggle, who attended Tuesday evening’s session as part of the lobbying group Save Our Doctors. “Our group definitely backs the need for stronger tort reform.”
Ehrlich also rejected the legislation, which was created in an unusual special session in late December, because it failed to put sufficient curbs on lawsuits and lawyers.
The bill calls for alternative dispute resolution, reducing limits on non-financial damages sought, increasing scrutiny for certification on qualified experts in cases, and establishing a People’s Insurance Counsel Division in the Office of the Attorney General, among other things.
Ehrlich’s spokesmen could not be reached for comment, however, his fellow legislative Republicans were upset at the override.
Delegate Addie Eckhardt, R-Dorchester, charged that passing the bill “is not being fiscally responsible.”
Other delegates claimed the bill would pass malpractice costs onto consumers and provide only a short-term fix of the health care system.
“This bill simply rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. “We have to do better than this . . . Government must solve problems, not subsidize them.”
The bill isn’t short term and opponents are being short sighted, said many Democratic delegates.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, called the GOP attitude a “chicken little” mentality.
It’s possible lawmakers and the governor will continue working on malpractice reforms when the Assembly convenes for its 2005 90-day session today.
“This is a flawed bill,” Simmons said, “but it’s a good bill. It’s the best bill that can be arranged under these circumstances.”
Delegate John Adams Hurson, D-Montgomery, disagreed consumers would bear the costs of the HMO tax, citing a study showing employees with medical plans would only have to pay an increase of 39 cents each month under the Assembly’s new malpractice plan.
“Since we had to get something done quickly,” Hurson said, “we did the best job we could.”
The House voted to override several other Ehrlich vetoes of bills passed in the regular 2004 session. The Senate was still deliberating its votes on the same bills late Tuesday.
Capital News Service reporter Sarah Lesher contributed to this report. – 30 – CNS-1-11-05