ANNAPOLIS – A House committee on Friday backed what proponents are calling this session’s most important plan to address the state’s medical malpractice situation.
But the proposal is already in question, despite the House speaker’s support, said one of the bill’s architects, because Senate opposition could kill the careful reforms.
The bill would make it more difficult for health insurers to increase premiums, require neutral experts to testify in court cases, protect physicians’ private apologies and continue the state’s study of malpractice issues.
After a tense discussion, the House Judiciary Committee voted almost unanimously to approve the heavily altered bill sponsored by Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.
The updated bill, authored in a new malpractice subcommittee led by Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, combines elements of some of the nearly two dozen bills on malpractice introduced this session, including one sponsored by Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
Combined with the new malpractice law enacted just before the session, the bill, lawmakers said, would help repair Maryland’s malpractice problem with the following provisions:
— A court would be required to appoint a neutral expert witness to help determine economic damages upon a party’s request. The witness, however, would not be held accountable by a medical board.
— The state’s insurance commissioner would be required to reject a health insurer’s requested rate increase if that insurer’s surplus is too large.
— Damage award suits would be restricted to courts in the same county as the malpractice occurrence.
— A physician’s apology to the victim or family would not be permissible in court.
— A task force would be established to study other malpractice issues, including requiring damages to be paid out periodically.
“This is a major piece of legislation,” Zirkin said. “It’s extremely important that we do this this year…
“Is it the total answer? No, absolutely not.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he supports the bill.
But Zirkin said the bill’s future is uncertain because of the Senate’s resistance to further malpractice reform.
Earlier this session, Senate leaders, including President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said they wanted to allow time for the new law to take effect before acting again.
“It’s highly doubtful that we’re going to move forward at this time,” Miller said.
Miller could not be reached for comment Friday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, was cautiously optimistic about the Senate’s response to possible House approval.
“We think we’ve got a pretty good package,” Vallario said. “We’re going to send it to them and hopefully they’ll agree with us on some of the parts on the bill.”
Some of his colleagues on Judiciary questioned whether the House should move forward. The committee had to cut short debate on the bill to vote, despite spending nearly all of a 90-minute Friday afternoon voting session discussing it.
That angered several committee members, including Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, who said the committee had not examined the issues thoroughly enough.
“Now we’re being forced into a really bad legislation,” she said.
Delegate Theodore Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel, also wanted more time.
“It’s insane,” he said, “to push a major piece of legislation and we’re trying to squeeze it in.”
Capital News Service reporter Sarah Abruzzese contributed to this report.