Bob Weaver

While the number of medical malpractice lawsuits have dropped in West Virginia, the number of bankruptcy cases linked to unpaid medical bills is increasing.

Medical settlements in West Virginia have fallen by more than 50 percent since the Legislature began revising laws involving such cases.

While the Bush administration focuses on privatizing Social Security and Medicare benefits and cutting Medicaid health benefits, more American's are declaring bankruptcy over unpaid medical bills.

The government, insurance companies and providers are participating in a widening gap of access to health care, unaffordable costs - 50 million people with no insurance and many more with "low return" coverage that requires high co-pays or deductibles.

There is little discussion of a "health care crisis," but most agree the current delivery system is headed toward a crash landing.

Medical malpractice lawsuits and settlements plunged from 411 in 2001 to 177 in 2004. Lawsuit verdicts and settlements dropped from $62 million to about $25 million during the same period, according to the West Virginia Board of Medicine.

The WV legislature approved major changes in 2001 and 2003, including capping damage awards, limiting a doctor's or hospital's share of a damage award to the percentage of blame assigned by a jury, and spurring physicians to create their own insurance company.

"We haven't given doctors immunity, but we have taken a big step toward giving them immunity by granting them caps and other protections that make it very difficult to sue them," said Morgantown attorney Allen Karlin.

Meanwhile, droves of West Virginians are going bankrupt because of big medical bills, according to bankruptcy lawyers around the state.

"This is not just the destitute people," said Scott Stapleton, a Huntington bankruptcy lawyer.

Some people file bankruptcy over huge hospital bills, but others file bankruptcy after expensive prescription drugs and doctor visits forced them to go into debt.

A recent Harvard University study estimated that nearly half of all personal bankruptcies are triggered by illness and medical bills.

More than 11,000 families and individuals filed for bankruptcy protection in West Virginia between July 2003 and June 2004.

At West Virginia Health Right, a free clinic in Charleston, chief executive officer Pat White has watched a number of people with insurance fall into financial trouble after a major health problem.

White said "We're all about one health-care crisis away from the same thing."

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