- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

The threat to Americans' access to medical care posed by medical malpractice lawsuits is on display again, this time in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, Gov.-elect Ed Rendell headed off a possible crisis last week by appointing a special commission to tackle the problem and promising to seek malpractice premium reductions as large as 40 percent. Before Mr. Rendell's announcement, more than 20 Philadelphia-area hospitals had made preparations to shut down emergency rooms.
In Scranton, 10 of the city's 18 general surgeons, 14 of its 15 orthopedists and all 8 of its urologists said they would stop taking new patients and would stop performing surgeries after New Year's Day. Neurosurgeon Shripathi Holla said his malpractice insurance costs had reached $450 a day, calling this a rate that was strangling his practice. Were Mr. Holla the only regular neurosurgeon at Community Medical Center, Scranton's largest hospital to have stopped coming to work due to the escalating malpractice premiums, the hospital would have been forced to shut down its trauma center and send patients to facilities at least 70 miles away.
While Mr. Rendell has managed to avert an immediate crisis, a cautionary note is in order. Little information about Mr. Rendell's plan has been made public, and it remains to be seen whether the new governor and the state legislature will agree to tort reforms which will persuade companies to remain in the state and lower their premiums, So, Pennsylvania is nowhere near arriving at any kind of long-term solution to its insurance problem.
In neighboring West Virginia particularly in the northern panhandle near Wheeling the situation is much worse. On Thursday, four hospitals transferred patients on Thursday after dozens of general surgeons, heart surgeons and orthpedists took 30-day leaves of absences to drive home the need for malpractice lawsuit relief.
Nearly all surgeries were cancelled New Year's Day at four hospitals; except for plastic surgeons, those four facilities had no emergency surgeons on the job last Wednesday. Patients in the northern part of the state are being moved to hospitals in Morgantown, Pittsburgh, or eastern Ohio.
Some doctors complain that Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, has shown more interest in meeting with trial lawyers who have resisted limits on the right to sue or the amount that plaintiffs can collect from doctors than he has in meeting with doctors who say they can no longer afford to practice in West Virginia. One 49-year-old general surgeon who went on leave Jan. 1 said he had to borrow money twice last year to pay $73,000 for malpractice insurance, and that his costs will rise to $100,000 next year.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wise is scheduled to present details of a reform plan to the legislature.
But West Virginia, as readers of this editorial page know, is but one example of the festering national problem of lawsuits which are driving up insurance costs for conscientious doctors. The American Medical Association, for example, has listed West Virginia and Pennsylvania among more than 15 states whose health-care systems are threatened by or on the verge of crisis due to the proliferation of medical malpractice lawsuits.
It's long past time for responsible legislators on the state and federal level to say no to the excesses of trial lawyers and yes to responsible doctors and their patients.

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