Critics of medical malpractice reform in West Virginia warned that if it was implemented, it would make it easier for health care professionals to avoid paying the price for their mistakes. Some added that reforms would basically shut off malpractice lawsuits as a means of protecting Mountain State residents from slipshod health care practices.
State legislators ignored the naysayers and, in 2001 and 2003, approved a package of reforms. They included setting limits on non-economic damages in malpractice lawsuits, and setting up a physicians' mutual insurance company.
Legislators' actions had the effect of ending an exodus of health care professionals who worried that practicing certain specialties would virtually guarantee that they would be sued.
But at the same time, the reforms maintained West Virginians' rights to be compensated for health care mistakes. That was made clear this week when then state Medical Association revealed that the number of malpractice lawsuits has been growing for the past three years. One hundred seventy-four of them were filed last year, compared to 130 the previous year. Through July, 75 have been filed this year.
That certainly doesn't sound as if the door to the courtroom has been barred to those who have genuine grounds to sue health care providers.
And, though trial lawyers warned earlier this decade that the health care profession would seek even more curbs on malpractice lawsuits, that hasn't happened. In fact, the Medical Association made it a point to note that it does not consider the increase in malpractice lawsuits to be a problem. "West Virginia has gone from being one of the worst crisis states in terms of its medical liability climate to one of the better states in the country," association Executive Director Evan Jenkins noted.
Malpractice reform had the effect of turning back a serious problem - loss of doctors in some areas and in certain specialties. It did not prevent those harmed by health care mistakes from obtaining redress. That ought to be remembered the next time a special interest group attempts to block reform of any kind in our state.