State Viewed as Bellwether on Insurance Dilemma

From the Charleston Daily Mail January 6, 2003, Monday
Copyright 2003 Charleston Newspapers

The other 49 states consider West Virginia the poster child for medical malpractice insurance problems, said the former president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

So Dr. Richard Roberts, a family practitioner in Wisconsin, today said the nation would closely watch over the next few weeks how lawmakers resolve problems with doctors getting and affording the insurance.

“Failure to act is the legislative equivalent of malpractice,” Roberts said.

Roberts helps direct Wisconsin’s version of a physician mutual insurance company. The concept would also work in West Virginia, if the medical liability law were tweaked, he said.

Physicians have said they would support such a company if current liability laws were changed.

Roberts spoke to several health officials today, endorsing the Care Coalition’s proposed “Care Bill” that includes aspects of tort reform that would make a physician mutual acceptable to the state’s doctors.

The other three states the American Medical Association has deemed to be in crisis – Mississippi, Nevada and Pennsylvania – have implemented tort reform in recent weeks, he said. Now it’s West Virginia’s turn.

“The tort system is an anachronism,” Roberts said. “Today there are such complexities of care.”

Trial lawyers, however, have said any kind of tort reform would not be fair to those patients injured by doctors’ mistakes.

The medical malpractice reform bill supported by physician and health-care organizations would require those who testify against doctors to be experts in the area in which they are testifying and that they should actively practice medicine.

The bill would limit the current 40 percent settlement a lawyer receives so the aggrieved patient receives more. A sliding scale would allow 40 percent to the lawyer of the first $ 50,000, then 33.3 percent of the next $ 50,000. The percentage eventually declines to 15 percent of any contingency fee over $ 600,000.

It also reduces the cap on non-economic loss to $ 250,000 but raises the cap by $ 10,000 each year after that; discloses to the court what other insurers have paid; holds physicians responsible for the amount of damages for which they are at fault; allows for periodic payments; and applies good Samaritan-like law to those rendering trauma care.

Roberts said the Wheeling surgeons who have taken leaves of absence show the desperation West Virginia doctors are feeling.

“I feel sad when I see doctors pushed to the point of not doing what they were trained to do,” he said. “You have a major problem in West Virginia.”