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Wise keeping a tight lid on '03 legislative plans

January 07, 2003

Gov. Bob Wise delivers West Virginia's State of the State address tomorrow, with legislative leaders saying for the third straight year that they're in the dark about what Wise will propose. We hope legislators' sensitivity over this slight doesn't delay action on the session's top priority - finding a solution to the state's medical malpractice crisis.

Despite pleas from state officials, doctors in the state's Northern Panhandle walked off the job recently in protest of soaring malpractice insurance rates. A state-run plan set up last year hasn't produced competitive rates, they said, because the state needs lawsuit reform as well.

If there's no solution, doctors could relocate to states where insurance rates are lower, leaving West Virginians without adequate medical care - and with little prospect of drawing new jobs to the state.

Pumping more money into the state-run insurance system will be tough because the state already faces a budget deficit of $250 million. The debate over how to raise the funds needed will be heated and more difficult than it should have been because the governor hasn't given top lawmakers a clue on what he's got in mind.

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But while the urgency of the malpractice issues may give Wise an edge, the same is unlikely when dealing with the workers comp bill. The Associated Press reports that the workers comp system's budget deficit rose from $572 million to $2.4 billion last year. Labor and business leaders are deeply divided on how to fix it.

But the Wise administration did get a break when Ohio County Judge Arthur Recht decided not to force a constitutional crisis by ordering the state to spend more money on schools.

As part of a case that's been pending since 1975, Recht in December ordered state officials to answer a series of questions about the school system and funding decisions. Recht reserved the right to reopen the case in the future, but for now seems content with the progress the state is making.

That's a good sign, because under the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, West Virginia will be accountable not to just a single judge, but to the national government. It's a shame the state can't count on Uncle Sam to help with the malpractice issue.

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