Docs’ malpractice plan hinges on coverage plea

BY DANIEL AXELROD
http://www.thetimes-tribune.com

Local state representatives are at the heart of a debate pitting an extension of a state-funded medical malpractice insurance abatement against a plan to expand coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured adults.

The bill is similar to but not as ambitious as Gov. Ed Rendell’s Cover All Pennsylvanians proposal.

Now, Mr. Rendell and some House lawmakers are pressuring the Senate to pass the Pennsylvania ABC plan.

They say they’ll let MCare — a popular temporary state program that helps doctors buy medical malpractice coverage — expire Monday if the senators don’t take up the issue. MCare was created in 2003 when skyrocketing insurance rates led doctors to leave Pennsylvania.

“This is our leverage to get this through the Senate. If you uncouple the two, then you’re not going to get this done,� said Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston.

“We’ve spent over $1 billion subsidizing physician malpractice insurance, it’s time we do something for all the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians without health care,� Ms. Mundy said.

The state’s uninsured residents are pegged at from 400,000 to more than 1 million. But many senators in the Republican-controlled chamber, including Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, and Democratic leader Robert Mellow, of Peckville, question the House bill’s timing. They also say linking it to MCare’s extension is irresponsible.

“The proponents feel the need to hold another unquestionably important piece of legislation hostage in order to advance a piece of legislation that can’t advance on its own merits,� Mr. Pileggi said.

Critics think funding sources are inadequate for a measure expected to cost $120 million in the first year and $1.1 billion by 2012-13.

Opponents bristle at using the roughly $400 million MCare fund surplus, from a 25-cent cigarette tax, when Pennsylvania is still on the hook for supporting doctors.

“This is typical Harrisburg,� Mr. Mellow said. “Find a pot of money regardless of what it might be, use it immediately to resolve a problem that’s going on today, and don’t worry about how to fund this even two years from now.�

Mr. Eachus said he can fund the bill, which would gradually expand coverage to about 270,000 adults and phase out MCare. Besides using MCare’s surplus, he wants to pass a tax for smokeless tobacco and cigars, use federal Medicaid dollars along with funding from tobacco and Blue Cross settlements.

Rep. Frank Shimkus, D-Throop, said the point of passing the bill was to figure out how to fund it.

“Passing this forces our hand. It says, ‘Now have to knuckle down,’ � he added.

“It does no good to the people who have no health care to say, ‘One day we’ll find a way to fund it.’ �

Contact the writer: daxelrod@timesshamrock.comsee original