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Mountain State malpractice

December 13, 2005

The malpractice insurance companies that operate in West Virginia are turning a profit and some are even reducing the rates they charge doctors.

That was the message state Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline gave Sunday to a joint interim committee of the state legislature.

It's time for Maryland to check out what the Mountain State is doing on this issue, to see if there's something worth copying.

Cline told lawmakers that in the past year, three companies have filed to reduce the rates they charge doctors.

What made the difference? Cline cited a 2001 law that requires a medical expert to sign off on any malpractice claim before it can be filed.

That requirement has led to a reported drop in malpractice claims and an increase in dismissals, she said.

But the profits insurance companies are seeing now are not excessive. Far from it, according to Cline.

She told lawmakers that the West Virginia Physicians Mutual Insurance Co., set up in 2003 to help doctors find coverage after other insurers stopped writing policies, is now paying out 96 cents of every dollar collected on claims and expenses.

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While that compares favorably to the national average - $1.08 paid out for every $1 collected - it doesn't put the physician's mutual company in a rock-solid position.

On the plus side, Cline said that of the five companies reviewed by her office that cover 80 percent of the state's physicians, investment income allowed them to pay out only 59 cents of every $1 earned in West Virginia.

That compares to 71.4 cents per $1 nationwide, Cline said. One issue Cline did not speak about was the effect on claimants of the $500,000 "cap" on so-called non-economic damages, more popularly know as "pain-and-suffering" awards.

Enacted in 2003, the cap hasn't been a factor in that many cases. But lawmakers should take a look and make sure that this provision isn't causing a hardship for some whose lives have been changed forever by medical mistakes.

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