A walkout by surgeons protesting high malpractice insurance costs will continue indefinitely because Gov. Bob Wise and the Legislature have not done enough to address the problem, a participating surgeon said Friday.
"No progress has been made," said Dr. Robert Zaleski, an orthopedic surgeon. "I am pessimistic at present that the state and trial attorneys of this state will give such concessions to make West Virginia a more attractive place for new physicians."
More than two dozen orthopedic, general and heart surgeons serving four hospitals in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle began 30-day leaves of absence Wednesday or planned to begin leaves in the next few days.
They want the state to make it harder to file malpractice lawsuits, a move they say would lower their premiums. They want a cap on pain and suffering awards, a board to review the validity of lawsuits before they are filed, and repeal of laws that allow suits to be filed twice in some cases, Zaleski said.
Most of the West Virginia surgeons are insured through a special program created by lawmakers last year, but even though the state recently cut rates for those policies, the premiums remain among the highest in the country.
"The only requirement for attorneys to file a lawsuit - and I have been victimized at least a dozen times - the only requirement is an attorney have an idea and $35," Zaleski said. "The attorneys in West Virginia shoot first and ask questions later."
Zaleski said he has lost several malpractice cases and admits fault in three or four. "I assure you during my 23 years of practice and nearly 450 surgeries a year, I do the very best I can on every case."
State Insurance and Retirement Services Director Tom Susman has said 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 had been threatened in Pennsylvania, but 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 leave from Weirton Medical Center. Both Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling and Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Glen Dale said surgeons there were taking leave, 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 on duty. Five patients had to be transferred elsewhere Wednesday and Thursday.
A group of Wheeling-area surgeons met with Wise and other state officials in Charleston for two hours Thursday afternoon.
One surgeon, Dr. David Ghaphery, told WOWK-TV in Charleston that some doctors left the meeting ready to return on a "good-faith" basis, on the understanding that the Legislature would enact helpful legislation when they return Wednesday.
But Dr. Donald Hofreuter, Wheeling Hospital's chief executive officer, said the walkout was continuing Friday.
Surgeons have gone back on the job in when needed. Thursday evening, two came in without hesitation to operate in a life-threatening trauma case, he said.
Doctors and hospitals are losing income. All but one of the surgeons at Wheeling Hospital are independent practitioners, not salaried hospital workers. They continue to receive income from seeing patients in their offices and for surgeries they do in neighboring states, but lose money on surgeries that are not performed.