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W. Virginia Hospitals Deal With Protest

January 2, 2003

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Four West Virginia hospitals cut staff hours and transferred more patients Thursday because of a surgeons’ walkout to protest malpractice costs.

State officials planned to announce an emergency program Thursday afternoon to ensure medical service to patients in the state’s northern panhandle.

More than two dozen orthopedic, general and heart surgeons in the area began 30-day leaves of absence Wednesday or planned to begin leaves in the next few days to protest medical malpractice costs.

They want the state to make it harder to file malpractice lawsuits, which they say would eventually lower their insurance premiums. They also want the state to seek help from insurance companies and other third parties to pay a larger share of their costs.

The state’s emergency program will involve ambulance transfer and patient referral procedures, State Insurance and Retirement Services Director Tom Susman said.

``We know there’s concern among area residents, and our top priority is to ensure the citizens of the northern panhandle get the medical care they need,″ Susman said.

Two patients were moved late Wednesday and two others Thursday, raising the number transferred in the two-day protest to five.

The four affected hospitals also began reducing shifts of operating room nurses and other surgical support staff.

``It’s definitely generating worries within our staff, both about their own financial needs and about the health of the community,″ said Howard Gamble, spokesman for Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling.

A surgeon taking part in a job action said doctors’ pleas for help have been ignored by state officials.

``We have had many meetings with state legislators and past governors. We have asked for help in the past. It seems as if it has fallen on deaf ears,″ Dr. Greg Saracco said on CBS’ ``Early Show.″ ``Physicians no longer want to come to work. Physicians are afraid to accept liability.″

State Insurance and Retirement Services Director Tom Susman has said Gov. Bob Wise will offer details of a new malpractice insurance plan in his State of the State address next week.

Last-minute talks with state officials failed to stop the protest. A similar walkout in Pennsylvania was averted when Gov.-elect Ed Rendell promised to work for a solution.

At least 18 of 19 surgeons at Wheeling Hospital are beginning 30-day leaves of absence, and 11 others have asked for leaves from Weirton Medical Center. Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling and Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Glen Dale said surgeons there were taking leaves, but it was unclear how many.

All four hospitals are keeping emergency rooms open. But, with the exception of plastic surgeons, they have almost no emergency surgeons available, which will require most patients to be transferred to hospitals in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Morgantown.

Dr. Donald Hofreuter, Wheeling Hospital’s chief executive officer, said he understands the doctors’ frustration, but he also is concerned about patient care.

One Wheeling Hospital patient needing emergency surgery Wednesday morning was transferred 88 miles to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, and two heart patients were transferred to Pennsylvania hospitals, Hofreuter said.

On Thursday, Weirton Medical Center transferred two patients to a hospital in Steubenville, Ohio. Wheeling Hospital transferred two heart patients to Pittsburgh-area hospitals. The four required non-emergency surgery.

Wheeling Hospital temporarily reinstated one of its surgeons who had taken a leave of absence so the surgeon could help a patient who couldn’t be transferred, Hofreuter said. He declined to give details.

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