Caps are a good thing. They keep your head warm. They keep oil from spilling into waters. They keep contents from spilling out of bottles.

And in West Virginia, they keep doctors from spilling out of West Virginia. Caps on medical malpractice awards, that is.

Before the Legislature set a $500,000 cap on non-monetary damages in lawsuits against physicians and hospitals, our state was hemorrhaging doctors. Outrageous awards for alleged "pain and suffering" were driving them away, creating real pain and suffering for West Virginians unable to obtain adequate and affordable medical care.

"Memories fade quickly," laments state Senator Evan Jenkins, who also is executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association. "We need to remind ourselves of the flight of doctors out of West Virginia and the physician retirements that were occurring because of the liability crisis."

Jenkins says the exodus of doctors caused "access-to-care problems all across the state."

He recalls patients being airlifted out of the Charleston Area Medical Center "because they didn't have enough qualified physicians, because they were being driven out of the state because of the liability environment."

The Legislature's Medical Professional Liability Act cut the number of malpractice suits filed annually in the state in half and lured doctors back to West Virginia.

"Does medical negligence occur?" Jenkins asks. "Yes. Do people deserve fair and just payment? Yes. But merit-less suits need to be weeded out, and they are. Our reforms are working."

Not everyone is happy with those positive results.

"The personal injury attorneys opposed the reforms as they were moving through the legislature," Jenkins said. "They vowed to fight them in the courts once they were signed into law and that's what they're doing."

Early next year, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will consider an Eastern Panhandle couple's challenge to the Legislature's $500,000 limit on non-monetary damages.

The court should keep the cap and protect West Virginians from the genuine pain and suffering that would result from another exodus of doctors.

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