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Political Animal

Malpractice Makes Perfect

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/29/2004

At what point does politics start becoming about solving problems and quit being about looking pretty for constituents?

I’ve worked for any number of politicos in my life, and each and every one has had re-election foremost in their minds. But there was once a time when helping people, rather than getting re-elected, was the point of running for office. You either wanted government to make life easier for people or to get government off their backs.

Times have changed.

Gov. Bobby Smooth, King of Slots, recently called a special session to deal with the issue of medical malpractice. He has brought the legislature back to Annapolis a month early to deal with the crisis—yet the week before the lawmakers were due back in their offices he still hadn’t put together a bill to deal with the issue. This is using government efficiently?

There is a deadline looming: Come Jan. 1, doctors could face malpractice premiums about 33 percent higher than the ones they’re facing right now if the legislature does not intervene. But despite the deadline, the idea in Annapolis is to bring something to the table as late as possible, play the doctors and the HMOs against one another in the court of public opinion, and pit the Democratic House of Delegates and Senate against one another as well. Just like he did over the slots issue that House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller haven’t been able to agree upon, it looks like Ehrlich is trying to play both ends against the middle one more time.

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee chairman Sen. Ulysses Currie told The Sun on Dec. 24 that “[g]iven the fact that the governor came out with a bill in the last minute during the holidays when people are out of town, I don’t think this makes any sense at all. . . . One has to wonder if they, in fact, want to solve this problem, or if this is more headlines.”

According to the Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society, only 2.7 percent of its enrollees have canceled their policies because of the rising rates, compared to 1.6 percent this time last year. And state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. could handle the rate increase while the lawmakers put together a real solution that all parties at the table could agree on for a change.

But sad to say, we’re not in the era of bipartisan agreement; it’s all about setting up the issue for upcoming elections.

Once again, it’s a case where Ehrlich—what a surprise—is coming down on the side of big corporations, whose backs he’s had covered ever since he walked into the statehouse. There’s a disagreement between the governor and lawmakers over whether the HMOs should pay a 2 percent premium tax that all other for-profit insurers in the state must pay. Analysts say lifting the HMO exemption from the 2 percent tax would generate enough revenue to freeze malpractice rates at this year’s level. Considering that when the state—that is, you and me—covers this cost for an insurer, we’re already giving these big companies a break.

Let’s look at how trustworthy many of these companies have proven to be over the past five years and decide whether we would prefer that taxpayers shoulder even more of the burden, or whether the companies themselves should be responsible for it by paying the 2 percent tax. Think about that for a little while—the rest of us will be over here counting how much we’ve already given to people like Bill Jews, CEO of the amusingly named CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. This comes at a time when the state could be facing a shortfall of something like $400 million for the coming year.

In the meantime, there’s a number of other things the legislature can handle while it’s in town. Of course, the gub’ner probably won’t care too much for what they want, which is no surprise. The people at the state university system want a cap on tuition increases, and there could be an override of an Ehrlich veto from the last session on that. On top of that, there’s the issue of the “living wage” that progressives have been pushing, and which likely won’t go away if it isn’t addressed during the short stint back in Annapolis before the real fun begins in January.

Right now, a 33 percent increase in doctor’s malpractice premiums is a big deal. But a few weeks from now, there will be a lot more money on the table, and there’s no sure bet that Gov. Smooth will be able to conjure up another session without raising money someplace that doesn’t involve gambling. Right now, it’s all show. But by April, it’ll be his last chance before an election year begins to find out where he’s gonna find the real dough.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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