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Malpractice law a first step

July 01, 2003

It's a lot better than a band-aid, but few expect the West Virginia medical malpractice bill which takes effect today to be the complete answer to the state's problems. But despite that, it's a big step forward.

The need for change became apparent last year when a number of insurers stopped writing malpractice coverage in West Virginia, in part because the cap on pain-and-suffering awards was $1 million.

Without insurance policies, doctors had two choices - treat patients without them and risk personal bankruptcy if a claim were filed - or leave the state. An exodus of physicians would have not only damaged the public health, but crippled the state's economic-development efforts, as potential employers avoided a state where their workers couldn't get health care.

Passing the bill was the 2003 session's major achievement, because the state not only capped damage awards, but also added $31 million to the effort to have doctors run their own insurance company.

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On the other side of the issue are the state's trial lawyers, who say that ensuring that medical facilities are properly staffed and that procures are followed is a more certain way to trim malpractice insurance costs.

Marvin Masters, president-elect of the West Virginia Trial lawyers Association, told The Associated Press that June figures released by Weis Ratings Inc. show that even in those states with caps on pain-and-suffering awards, insurance costs went up anyway.

We agree with Evan Jenkins, executive director of the state's medical association and a state senator from Cabell County, that this probably isn't the last legislation that will be needed.

What's happened so far has all been focused on what happens after someone has been hurt. The doctors who run the physicians mutual insurance company will have a stronger incentive to police their own ranks, but true progress will come only when there's a better and more organized effort to look at what causes medical errors.

The object of that effort should not be to further punish the physician who erred, but to alert the next doctor to be aware of whatever point in the process errors are likely to take place.

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