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Doctors hopeful after meeting

January 20, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

A West Virginia insurance official and a group of Eastern Panhandle physicians sought support from each other for resolving the state's malpractice insurance crisis during a meeting Saturday morning at City Hospital in Martinsburg.

About 40 to 50 people - mostly physicians - packed the room at City Hospital where nine surgeons had just a week earlier requested leaves of absence to protest the costs of malpractice premiums in West Virginia. The leaves are to begin Feb. 1.

While the state House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday to limit malpractice liability and create a state mutual insurance company for physicians, the doctors had plenty of questions and comments for state Board of Insurance and Retirement Director Tom Susman.

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Dr. Jerry Fogle said he pays three times as much for his malpractice premiums as his brother, a physician practicing in Richmond, Va.

"Is it not apparent that some states have found solutions?" he asked.

Susman referred the doctors to the malpractice bill just approved by the House of Delegates and now under review in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The bill will provide the solution," he said, including tort reform - limiting liability - and caps on awards in malpractice suits. The bill provides a $250,000 cap on "noneconomic" damages - pain and suffering - and a $500,000 cap on awards arising from trauma care.

The doctors noted that some insurers no longer offer malpractice insurance in West Virginia. Those that do charge premiums more than twice as much as physicians pay in Maryland.

Dr. Jim Carrier, a general surgeon and one of the nine requesting leave, said his premiums had jumped from $35,000 three years ago to $85,000 last year. Surgeons in Hagerstown pay about $30,000, he said.

Several doctors had questions about the mechanics of the physicians' mutual insurance company the bill would create, and whether the state should get into the insurance business.

Susman noted that some insurers no longer provide malpractice insurance in West Virginia because of "certain laws of economics."

"There are 1.8 million people in West Virginia. They could go to Pittsburgh and find 1.8 million people," Susman said.

This company, would be owned by West Virginians," Susman said.

"We're not going anywhere," he said. "Sometimes I think we're better off doing it ourselves."

Susman said he hoped the proposed legislation would be approved within the first 30 days of the legislative session. He asked the doctors for support.

"What you all have to do is stay on top of this issue we need to maintain vigilance. It's a participatory democracy," he said.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who arranged the meeting after the City Hospital surgeons requested leave, asked the doctors for patience.

"Surgeons don't rush surgery," he said, and asked the doctors for time to see the bill through.

"You will see a lot of activity in the next two to three weeks," he promised.

"I appeal to you to give the process a little more time than Feb. 1," he said. "If we do not follow through on our obligations, everyone will understand what you're going to do."

For his part, Carrier said the doctors will be "tickled" if the bill gets through the state Senate as it is. He didn't promise the physicians wouldn't walk on Feb. 1, but he said their plan is to closely monitor the progress of the bill.

Chief Executive Officer Jon Applebaum said City Hospital is putting together a contingency plan for alternative care if the doctors take leave. Some patients would likely be transferred to Winchester (Va.) Medical Center or to Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown.

He hopes that won't happen.

"I think things look promising," he said. "I'm hearing a lot of optimism. We hope to see progress in the Senate in the next two weeks."

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