Surgeons threaten additional walkouts

Sunday, January 5, 2003

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state should expect more surgeon walkouts if Gov. Bob Wise doesn't offer them relief from the high cost of medical malpractice insurance in his upcoming legislative package, a surgeon said Saturday.

About two dozen surgeons in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle started taking monthlong leaves of absence last week, beginning Wednesday at Wheeling Hospital and Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, Reynolds Memorial Hospital in nearby Glen Dale and Weirton Medical Center.

"We asked the governor to come out publicly and say what his solution will be," heart surgeon Dr. Gary Parentau said in a telephone interview from his home in Wheeling. "If people don't see him deliver, well, I could see Parkersburg doing it.

Surgeons in the Parkersburg area, southwest of Wheeling along the Ohio River, are considering similar action, says Dr. David Avery, a family practitioner.

Parentau said if Parkersburg surgeons also walk out, "it's just going to keep spreading."

The walkout has forced the hospitals to transfer at least a dozen patients to facilities in the northern West Virginia university city of Morgantown and in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which flank the panhandle.

Wheeling Hospital sent one heart patient to a Pittsburgh hospital Saturday morning, bringing its total to seven, President Donald Hofreuter said.

"I think there is no clear cut indication at this point what will happen. We will play it hour by hour," Hofreuter said.

The Wise administration announced Friday that it had ended talks with the surgeons to focus on its legislative proposals. The Legislature begins its regular session Wednesday.

Wise has said he plans to address changes to malpractice lawsuits and damage awards, which the surgeons blame for their high insurance premiums.

Parentau said his annual premium is nearly $100,000. That, coupled with a drop in Medicaid reimbursements, is making it difficult to continue practicing, he said.

"Our group can't do business. We're broke," he said.

Doctors in other states, including Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have made similar complaints. Some insurers, such as St. Paul, have dropped their malpractice business while others have raised premium rates because of losses suffered in the terrorist attacks and slumping stocks .

Some West Virginia lawmakers are skeptical that limiting malpractice lawsuits and jury awards will provide relief.

"I don't think that any tort reform we pass will lower premiums," said Delegate J.D. Beane. "But perhaps they won't increase as drastically as they have. What I think would be a plus for us is to stabilize malpractice rates."

Delegate Carrie Webster said limiting patients' ability to sue would benefit bad doctors and the insurance companies that helped create the state's problems.

Parentau said he has received calls of support from doctors in Nevada, Texas and Florida. He said West Virginia could be a leader in reducing malpractice premiums.

"It's out nationally and the nation is watching West Virginia," he said.

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