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Harsh language won't resolve W. Virginia malpractice issue

February 04, 2003

Nine surgeons working in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle have pushed back a planned walkout until Feb. 15 so they can get more information on what state lawmakers are doing to deal with the rising cost of malpractice insurance. Legislators need to act quickly to prevent any interruption in medical care.

A spokesman for the nine surgeons based at Martinsburg's City Hospital said that if the walkout comes, most would continue to run their private practices and make sure someone is available for emergencies at the hospital.

That's good, but in some cases minutes can make all the difference, so we'd rather see the situation resolved, for the health and safety of all concerned.

The heart of the problem is the soaring cost of malpractice insurance, which some companies have stopped writing policies altogether in West Virginia. In its last session, the state set up a limited program run through the Board of Risk management that enrolled about 500 physicians, with the idea that it would eventually become a doctor-run mutual insurance group.

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But the doctors have said that the state hasn't put enough money into that effort, because the program's rates are still among the nation's highest.

And for the long term, doctors says changes are needed in the state's malpractice laws. Specifically, they want the pain-and-suffering award cap reduced from $1 million to $250,000. They'd also like to see changes in the collateral source rule, which now allows injured parties to get paid by several sources for the same injury.

Now the state Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed modifications to a bill passed earlier by the House. It would change the amount of the pain-and-suffering cap in some circumstances and would void all changes if a physicians' mutual insurance company isn't started by September 2004.

We understand lawmakers' reluctance to keep the state in the insurance business for the long term, but their goal ought to be creating a climate in which any insurer can do business.

They can best do that by remembering that health care is an essential service and that crafting progressive proposals - and not ultimatums - is the best way to preserve it.

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