Md. Docs Postpone Surgery Slowdown

October 6, 2004

Four Washington County, Maryland doctors have agreed to an indefinite delay of their plan to halt non-emergency surgery to protest a 33 percent increase in medical malpractice insurance premiums.

After a meeting with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the doctors said they would ask other doctors at Washington County Hospital Association to follow their lead to give the governor and General Assembly leaders time to seek a legislative solution to the rapid increase in premiums they say has produced a health care crisis in Maryland.

“The governor has asked us to stay at work. We have heard him,” Dr. Dino J. Delaportas, chief of staff at the hospital, said.

The halt to non-emergency surgery for two weeks was scheduled to begin Nov. 15, affecting procedures such as hernia repair, breast biopsies and colonoscopies. Karl Riggle, chief of surgery, said he thought other doctors on the hospital staff will agree to delay the limitation on surgery.

Ehrlich and legislative leaders have been considering calling a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the insurance problem, but have not been able to reach agreement on a solution.

Ehrlich and Busch want a long-term fix that would hold down the cost of settling malpractice claims in court.

Miller opposes caps on malpractice payments and other proposals to limit patients’ ability to collect damages and is drafting legislation to deal with the short-term problem. He favors creating a fund to cover part of the cost of malpractice claims if insurers will agree to freeze premiums.

Miller’s plan was vehemently opposed by the doctors at the meeting with Ehrlich, who said putting more money into the system would just encourage more lawsuits.

“We’re not going to be subjugated to the Millers of the world,” Dr. David Solberg, vice chief of staff, said.

Delaportas said Miller’s proposal “is simply paying for the problem. It’s not solving it.”

Busch said the legislature needs to do something to reduce the cost of malpractice insurance while giving patients who are victims of medical errors “recourse through the judicial system.”

“It shouldn’t be about doctors. It shouldn’t be about lawyers. It should be about patients,” he said.

The doctors said the proposed slowdown planned for next month “would show the public a glimpse of the future.”

“Physicians in this state are already cutting down their practices,” Solberg said. “Two years ago, Maryland was not a state in crisis. It is now.”

Lobbyists for trial lawyers argued during the 2004 legislative session that insurance companies and a lagging stock market that depresses earnings on their investments are responsible for a 28 percent rate hike this year and the 33 percent increase in premiums that will take effect Nov. 1.

The Washington County doctors put the blame on unjustified malpractice suits and runaway jury awards.

Solberg said the cost of malpractice awards in Maryland rose from $47 million in 2000 to $74 million in 2003.

“The system is fundamentally wrong. We happen to pay a big part of the price,” he said.

Ehrlich has a task force drafting legislation to be introduced when the 2005 legislative session begins. He has been traveling the state, holding news conferences at hospitals to promote the need to do something quickly about malpractice insurance.

“As governor, I have a bully pulpit, and I have an obligation,” he said.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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