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W.Va. doctors put off protest

February 02, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Nine City Hospital surgeons who planned to walk out today have moved the date to Feb. 15 as medical malpractice legislation makes its way through the state Senate.

Dr. James Carrier, one of the surgeons participating in the walkout, said Friday he has some questions about the legislation, especially with provisions he called "loopholes."

The bill, which was passed from the House of Delegates to the Senate and most recently came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will now head to the Finance Committee.

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The Senate's version raises the House's $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages to $500,000 in cases of death, loss of limb or permanent disability. It voids the House's $500,000 trauma cap for care that is unrelated to the emergency condition, that occurs after the patient is stabilized or that violates trauma or emergency room procedure.

Also, proof is required that a victim had a 25 percent or better chance of recovering or surviving were it not for the alleged malpractice. The House set a 50 percent threshold.

The bill demands that all caps and limits be voided if a physicians' mutual is not started by September 2004. The House version did not mention a mutual insurance company.

Carrier said he wonders what will happen if the mutual is deemed unsound, what constitutes "loss of limb" and whether the bill provides adequate protection for obstetricians.

"What I'd like to see is no loopholes," he said.

"Why can't we just have straightforward tort reform?"

For now, Carrier said he will rely on the expertise of consultants working with the West Virginia State Medical Association to tell him whether the bill is effective.

The bill should be good for physicians and enable the state to recruit much-needed doctors, Carrier said.

If the experts find this bill does not meet doctors' needs, Carrier said the leaves of absence could go into effect in two weeks.

"By then we think we should have enough information to see if it's a good bill," Carrier said. "If they tell us that a physicians' mutual won't work, I don't think we as physicians should support it."

Some doctors who would rather not request leaves of absence might go to Charleston instead to meet with legislators. Around 30 doctors met Thursday night to discuss the issue, Carrier said.

City Hospital spokeswoman Teresa McCabe said the news that the surgeons pushed back their walkout date was a relief. Around 30 of the hospital's doctors are surgeons.

"From a hospital standpoint, we're certainly pleased," she said.

As active members of the hospital's staff with the ability to admit patients, the surgeons had asked for indefinite leaves of absence.

"There's no action that we can take on the requests other than grant them because they're not employees," McCabe said.

Carrier has said he and the other surgeons would not walk out if the Legislature finds a way to decrease medical malpractice insurance premiums and passes tort reform legislation.

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

A surgeon in Hagerstown pays around $30,000, Carrier said.

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

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

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