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W. Va. governor ends efforts to defuse walkout by doctors

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2003

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Giving up on trying to convince surgeons to return to their jobs, Gov. Bob Wise on Friday switched his focus to pushing for legislation that would reduce the high medical malpractice insurance costs that prompted the walkout.

"We've changed our focus to trying to get our legislation together to get a statewide solution," said Tom Susman, the state Insurance and Retirement Services director who has headed negotiations with about two dozen surgeons who walked off the job Wednesday.

The walkout has forced four hospitals in northwestern West Virginia to transfer about 10 patients to other nearby facilities. Some patients were moved in case they needed surgery later.

When the talks ended yesterday, Susman urged the protesters not to compromise patient care, he said.

"They've assured us that they haven't done patient abandonment," Susman said. "Some of them have gone in and done emergency work. I think that's commendable. But overall, they're penalizing the state of West Virginia and I think they're penalizing the hospitals up there."

Dr. Gregory Saracco, one of the surgeons and a spokesman for the group, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

The orthopedic, general and heart surgeons have taken monthlong leaves of absence to protest premiums that are among the highest in the country.

Wise has said that in next week's State of the State speech, he will discuss limiting malpractice lawsuits and damage awards, which surgeons blame for high insurance premiums.

"What the governor is going to propose next week is clearly a long-term solution, and it's something he's been working on for some time," Health and Human Resources Secretary Paul Nusbaum said yesterday. He added that the plan is "not a gut reaction" to the walkout.

Legislative leaders, including those who favor limits on malpractice suits and awards, hope that is the case.

"It is dangerous for a Legislature to act from a position of what might be seen as a threat," said House Speaker Bob Kiss. "If you act on that, you're going to see it again."

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