Lawyers Criticize Doctors’ Walkout

From the Charleston Daily Mail January 4, 2003, Saturday
Copyright 2003 Charleston Newspapers

WHEELING – After surgeons here made a national media splash by refusing to perform operations until the state addresses the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance, the area’s lawyers went on the offensive.

Calling the surgeons’ actions “despicable” and a violation of their professional duties, Northern Panhandle plaintiffs’ attorneys joined forces to condemn the doctors in the walkout as “outlaws.”

As about two dozen of the lawyers held a mass press conference Friday on the front steps of the Ohio County Courthouse, though, the doctors were wrapping up negotiations with a newly attentive governor’s office.

Though talks Friday between striking surgeons and the Wise administration didn’t yield any concrete solutions, the doctors are confident that Gov. Bob Wise got the message.

“I think that the governor, who is a lawyer and whose wife is a lawyer, has been controlled so far by one special interest. But now he has the chance to redefine himself and do something great,” said heart surgeon Dr. Gary Parentau, one of the leaders of the walkout. “But he has to decide: Does he keep bowing down to one special interest or does he quit parsing politics and rise to the occasion? Either he takes care of West Virginia or he takes care of the trial lawyers.”

Doctors in the Northern Panhandle want to see an aggressive plan from the administration by the time Wise delivers his State of the State address Wednesday. They want provisions for tort reform and short-term relief on malpractice insurance rates that have skyrocketed over the past five years.

Bob Fitzsimmons, the top medical malpractice lawyer in the area and one of the most successful in the state, said that the doctors are being reckless with their patients’ lives and ignoring the facts.

“It’s amazing. The insurance companies jack up the rates on them, and the doctors are still out there pushing these companies’ agenda,” Fitzsimmons said. “That’s kind of sad to me. They think their enemy is their ally and they just can’t see the truth.”

Fitzsimmons said tort reform initiatives in other states have failed to reduce insurance premiums and that the real problem is insurance companies trying to extract large profits from a small market.

He also said that some of the surgeons who are participating in the walkout have high premiums for a reason.

“What about the people out there who are dead or permanently disabled because of gross negligence?” Fitzsimmons said.

“Where’s the attention for them? Why isn’t the media talking about that?”

Fitzsimmons pointed to one surgeon who faced criminal charges for using a patient to obtain prescription painkillers for himself and another who was convicted of falsifying a patient’s records to protect himself in a malpractice case.

“These guys are still practicing, and their colleagues have done nothing about it,” he said. “If they want less suits, they should do something to police themselves, because right now they aren’t doing anything.”

The current walkout was another example of doctors placing their own wealth ahead of their patient’s well being, Fitzsimmons said.

Parentau, who performed an emergency surgery Friday morning, said that he and his colleagues have done everything they can to safeguard their patients during the work stoppage.

“We’re not going to let people die or suffer, but we have decided that until something changes we can’t take any new patients. There’s just too much uncertainty,” Parentau said. “I’m not from here. I came here to practice medicine at a great heart center with great doctors, but if something doesn’t change I’ll have to go back to the Midwest.

“I’m 43. I should be in the prime of my professional life. Instead, I come to work thinking about premiums and politics. What I should be thinking about first and foremost is my patients’ care.”

Parentau said that he and the other members of the walkout saw the success doctors in Charleston had when orthopedic surgeons there caused Charleston Area Medical Center to loose its Level One trauma designation.

“We watched that with great interest,” Parentau said. “They lost their trauma status, and the governor came in and struck a deal. It made us wonder if we would have to do something similar to get any attention.”

Parentau said that he pays about $ 100,000 in malpractice insurance premiums each year – which has amounted to a 20 percent increase for each of the past three years, all over a period in which he has not been sued once.

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