ANNAPOLIS – With a House committee expected to vote on several medical malpractice bills today, lawmakers are complaining they lack the facts they need to make informed decisions.
Accusations from concerned parties are plentiful, but without enough evidence, key lawmakers doubt any substantial malpractice reform will be enacted during the final month of the legislative session.
“It’s almost a certainty,” said Montgomery County Democrat Luiz Simmons, chairman of a House malpractice subcommittee created last week. “We’re constantly legislating in the dark. . . .
“The problem is many people put their ideology before the facts,” Simmons said. “You can ask for information and they give you information that is not what you asked for.”
Simmons’ subcommittee will try to dig up the details lawmakers need to properly analyze the situation. They should not push for reform now, he said, because there may no longer be a malpractice crisis in Maryland.
After doctors threatened to close practices over rising insurance costs, lawmakers created a fund to cap doctors’ malpractice premium increases by overriding a veto by Gov. Robert Ehrlich in January. The legislators also have endorsed a technical bill to make it easier for the Maryland Insurance Administration to implement the new law.
Many concerned parties want more malpractice reform, but key lawmakers have not heard enough evidence to favor any.
When the House Judiciary Committee heard nearly two dozen malpractice bills Tuesday, witnesses provided plenty of anecdotes and charges, but few facts.
Don Hogan, Ehrlich’s deputy legislative officer, said the governor’s plan, which caps pain-and-suffering damage awards, is needed because plaintiffs in malpractice cases are overcompensated.
Trial attorneys and malpractice victims said Ehrlich’s measure, which also requires the court to appoint a neutral expert to testify in malpractice cases, would unfairly protect doctors and insurers.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, defended Maryland’s chief physician insurer, the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society, claiming its highly criticized surplus was reasonable.
When committee members asked witnesses for solid evidence, though, little was provided.
A proponent of Ehrlich’s bill, for example, said insurers “have gone bankrupt writing malpractice policies recently,” but did not cite any.
“In a couple of years now we still have not gotten adequate answers on the insurance side,” said Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “We’re going to need these answers to pass a tort reform bill.”
The committee is scheduled to vote today on the measures it heard Tuesday. Simmons does not anticipate any of them becoming laws.
The technical bill stands a better chance. It has the support of Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer and passed the Senate last week.
It should pass the House as well, said Prince George’s Democrat Dereck Davis, chairman of the House Economic Affairs Committee, one of two committees assigned to examine the bill.
Davis and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh, D- Montgomery, bill co-sponsor, said his technical changes should be allowed to work with the new law before lawmakers enact further reforms.
“This bill makes it much simpler,” Frosh said, “for doctors to get their rate relief…They didn’t get everything they wanted (but) I think we ought to see how this works.”
Barve, who has sponsored three malpractice bills, disagreed that the new law and Frosh’s bill would rectify the situation. There is a malpractice crisis, he said, and lawmakers should at least establish courtroom accountability to counter it.
“Even if we did not have a crisis, it would make sense,” Barve said, “to say that expert testimony by doctors is a part of the practice of medicine and ought to be regulated.”
The measure should pass now, he said, “We have to do something to reform the medical malpractice system.”
Senate Minority Whip Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, agreed. Frosh’s bill, along with the new law, provides only a short-term fix, he said.
“We didn’t solve anything. We put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Harris, an anesthesiologist.
Harris criticized Democratic Senate leaders for their inaction, accusing them of being “beholden to the trial lawyer interest.
“As long as you have the current makeup and power structure of the Senate,” Harris said, “I don’t think there’s going to be meaningful tort reform.”
Simmons, Barve and Frosh disagreed, noting that reform’s greatest obstacle is the lack of proof — not politics.
Citing the Maryland Hospital Association’s testimony before his committee last week, Frosh said:
“How do they know” the new law won’t be effective? “There is some burden of proof that they have to meet. At a minimum they have to give us some numbers that show there is a crisis…You’d think they’d come to the hearing with that.”