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Docs may walk

Nine surgeons at Martinsburg's City Hospital plan to walk off the job Feb. 1 over tort reforms and medical malpractice insurance

Nine surgeons at Martinsburg's City Hospital plan to walk off the job Feb. 1 over tort reforms and medical malpractice insurance

January 13, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG - Nine City Hospital surgeons on Friday requested leaves of absence to start Feb. 1, but one doctor involved said the walkout will not happen if legislators support tort reforms and find a way to lower medical malpractice insurance premiums.

Dr. Jim Carrier said he believes that between now and Feb. 1 more surgeons will request leaves of absence from City Hospital, possibly doubling the number. Around 30 of the hospital's physicians are surgeons, hospital spokeswoman Teresa McCabe said

Carrier, a general surgeon, is participating in the walkout - although he would not use that word, saying it carries a bad connotation.

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Most of the surgeons involved will keep their private practices open and ensure a surgeon is available if a patient arrives at the hospital in a life-or-death situation, Carrier said.

Wary of the past, Carrier said he wants more than a verbal assurance from lawmakers that they support physicians.

"We've heard 'We're behind you, we're behind you,' but when it's time to vote, the votes aren't there," he said.

After listening to Gov. Bob Wise's State of the State speech Wednesday night, Carrier said he and others were impressed, but worry problems could arise in the Legislature.

Carrier said he is relatively confident members of the House of Delegates will pass a bill dealing with the issues within two weeks, but he's leery of the Senate, where some key committees are headed by attorneys.

During his annual address, Wise proposed creating a $20 million fund for three years to protect doctors who switch to state-provided insurance. Funding would come from the state's settlement with the tobacco industry.

Wise also proposed award caps of $500,000 for trauma cases and a $250,000 cap, with a sliding scale, for awards for pain and suffering.

Wise mentioned two cornerstones of tort reform, including the notion that if an injured person is reimbursed through worker's compensation or another source they should not be able to collect more money from a lawsuit.

Also, Wise said that if several people are responsible for a person's injury, one should not have to foot the entire bill if the others cannot afford to pay.

One issue Wise did not mention is implementing a sliding scale for attorney's fees.

"Our defense costs are extraordinarily high here," Carrier said.

In a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed, Carrier paid more than $200,000 in defense costs, he said.

Wise also failed to say he would help hospitals with provider taxes. Last year, City Hospital paid $1.8 million for that tax, Carrier said.

Legislators began meeting in Charleston, W.Va., earlier this week for a 60-day session and, not for the first time, assured doctors and the public that the medical malpractice issue tops their list of priorities.

Doctors have left the state because of high insurance premiums. Those who want to stay in West Virginia, like Carrier, have few options.

Three years ago, Carrier - who said he performs about 700 surgeries a year - paid $35,000 for malpractice insurance. In October of last year, he said he paid $85,000.

By comparison, a surgeon in Hagerstown pays around $30,000, Carrier said.

Plans to take leaves of absence were announced one day after two Wheeling, W.Va., surgeons visited their counterparts in Martinsburg Thursday night, Carrier said. About two dozen Wheeling surgeons walked out of hospitals in the state's Northern Panhandle more than a week ago. Many returned to work Friday.

Although doctors in Martinsburg did not give an indication of how long the walkout here could last, Carrier said he hopes it will not happen at all.

And he worries some may not understand the surgeons' perspective.

"They'll try to put a spin on it and make it sound like we're greedy," he said. "We're doing this, and I hope this comes through, to ensure that people continue to get quality health care in West Virginia."

Along with Carrier, the others participating in the walkout are five orthopedic surgeons, two urologists and a gynecologist, McCabe said.

When asked last week, McCabe said she did not believe any of City Hospital's surgeons planned to walk out.

"This definitely took us by surprise," she said Friday evening.

Next week, hospital officials will meet to create a plan of action should the walkout happen, McCabe said.

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