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Governor vows to veto malpractice bill in Md.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- The state General Assembly approved a medical malpractice overhaul package early yesterday aimed at cutting doctors' skyrocketing insurance costs, but Governor Robert Ehrlich said he would veto it because it includes a tax on premiums that HMOs would have to pay, but would conceivably be passed on to consumers.

In a meeting that stretched 17 hours, until around 3:30 a.m., the bill got final approval in the Senate in a 32-13 vote. Earlier, the House had approved it, 85-44.

The governor summoned lawmakers to Annapolis on Tuesday for a special session to deal with malpractice costs, which he said was the most important issue facing the state. Doctors face a deadline of today for paying their 2005 premiums.

Ehrlich proposed strict restrictions on malpractice lawsuits, arguing that frivolous suits and excessive awards had driven up the cost of insurance to the point that some doctors were shutting down their practices.

But the bill developed by House and Senate negotiators also would apply a 2 percent tax, opposed by Ehrlich, on health maintenance organization premiums. The proceeds from the tax would be used to underwrite the cost of malpractice insurance and increase Medicaid reimbursements to doctors in specialties such as obstetrics, where malpractice costs have been particularly high.

Ehrlich said late Wednesday that the "net result of this exercise is a tax bill" which he said is unacceptable. He vowed to introduce his own bill, without the tax increase, when the 2005 legislative session begins Jan. 12.

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