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Birth-injury fund supporters tout statewide support

New poll shows measure backed by hospitals is viewed favorably by Republicans and Democrats

ANNAPOLIS – Supporters of a proposed no-fault birth-injury fund say the measure has increased support across the state this year.

A poll conducted last month by the Annapolis-based OpinionWorks found that 71 percent of Marylanders support creating the fund and 16 percent oppose it — an increase in support of 9 percentage points over a poll conducted last year.

The measure enjoys support among both Democratic and Republican voters, said OpinionWorks President Steve Raabe.

“Voters are clearly saying they would like to see the two parties work together to pass this measure,” Raabe said Tuesday during a press conference.

The fund would provide compensation for babies who suffer neurological injuries during birth through an administrative process rather than the court system as long as families give up the right to sue.

Advocates say it would help keep down the cost of malpractice insurance and prevent families from having to wait years for malpractice claims to be resolved before they get the money they need.

Raaabe’s poll found that 64 percent of Marylanders believe it’s fair to ask families to give up the right to sue in order to take advantage of the fund, with 30 percent opposing and 6 percent unsure, according to the poll memo.

The poll of 500 Marylanders was commissioned by the Maryland Maternity Access Coalition, an advocacy group backed by Mercy Medical Center and other hospitals.

Legislation creating the fund is sponsored by Del. Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, who has proposed similar bills several times in past years without success. The senate version of the bill will be sponsored this year Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore City.

The fund has also earned the support of the Maryland Hospital Association, the state chapter of the American College of Nurse-Midwives and MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society, which represents the state’s doctors.

Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of hospital association, said at the press conference a key component of the proposal is that it doesn’t require those seeking compensation to prove negligence – all injuries that meet certain criteria are eligible for compensation.

“It really takes away this notion of fault from the system,” Coyle said.

Morhaim has said that doctors who are negligent can still face disciplinary measures even if a malpractice suit isn’t filed.

Uphill climb

Opposition has been led by the state’s trial lawyers, represented by the Maryland Association for Justice, which has argued the cost of malpractice insurance has been on the decline in recent years and that the fund – financed by premiums paid by hospitals – would amount to a new tax on health care because the cost would be passed on to insurers and, ultimately, consumers.

Increased support or no, the measure still faces an uphill climb in the legislature, where it has died in committee in past years.

Committee leaders say they’ll give the proposal a fresh look this year, but Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said members have been concerned in the past about how well the idea had worked in the two other states — Florida and Virginia — that have adopted similar funds.

Supporters and opponents of the Maryland bill disagree over how well the funds in those states are working; a state work group examining access to obstetrical care in Maryland reported in 2014 that Florida’s malpractice premiums remained high and the Virginia program has experienced funding issues.

Zirkin also noted that whether the decision was made by an administrative body or a jury, there would always be potential for dispute over how much care money is needed to care for an injured child.