Putnam General blames impending closure on trial lawyers

By Chris Dickerson | Aug 1, 2006

Putnam General Hospital

HURRICANE – Putnam General Hospital officials announced Tuesday that all inpatient services will end at the end of the month, and they placed the blame on trial lawyers.

Prominent West Virginia plaintiffs lawyers, however, throw the blame right back at the hospital and HCA, its parent company.

"Our painstaking assessment indicates that Putnam General cannot continue to be operated as an acute-care hospital," Margaret Lewis, president of HCA's Capital Division, said Tuesday. "Personal injury trial lawyers have filed lawsuits to block its sale to LifePoint and engaged in an ongoing campaign that has unfairly discredited our employees and affiliated physicians.

"These actions are devastating to the hospital, and they jeopardize our ability to continue providing high-quality inpatient care in the future."

Lewis and Mark Foust, HCA Capital's Vice President of Marketing, noted that personal injury trial attorneys representing more than 100 patients have filed lawsuits against Dr. John King and Putnam General since 2004. King was an orthopedic surgeon who practiced at Putnam General from November 2002 until June 2003.

The hospital is defending itself against the suits and has adequate resources to cover claims if needed, the company said in a press release.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Lewis and other hospital officials announced that they would attempt to convert the facility to an urgent care center. The timetable for that conversion still is evolving as talks continue between hospital officials and the West Virginia Health Care Authority, which has regulatory oversight over such facilities. HCA company officials say state approval is not required to discontinue inpatient services at the facility by Aug. 29.

"This really is a sad day for everyone," Lewis said at the press conference. "But we no longer can operate in this environment.

"This is a sad day, but a necessary decision. The hospital's employees and physicians have done their best during a very difficult time and they deserve tremendous credit. But we believe this decision is in the best interests of the community."

Foust said the actions of the trial lawyers have ruined the hospital's reputation.

"We believe personal injury trial lawyers have taken actions that have been devastating to our hospital," he said. "The community has lost trust in us."

King has received national headlines over the lawsuits racked up in West Virginia, which claim he maimed and even killed patients. In March, King changed his name to Christopher Wallace Martin in his native Alabama.

"We're not here to try Dr. King in the press," Foust said Tuesday. "There has been an orchestrated campaign that has spread misinformation about our hospital.

"Personal injury trial lawyers, in our opinion, are more interested in their own agenda than the needs of this community."

Lewis agreed.

"The continued misrepresentation of facts surrounding this (King) case has made it difficult to recruit and retain employees," she said. "It inhibits our ability to function properly."

The president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Assocation said Tuesday that the loss of Putnam General and the jobs it generated will be have a significant impact on Putnam County.

"There is no question that Putnam General's patients depended on that hospital," Jeffrey T. Jones said. "Unfortunately, HCA abandoned those patients when it hired Dr. John King in 2002. As a result of numerous medical errors made by Dr. King, some patients were permanently injured and others died."

Jones said HCA had a responsibility to ensure that its patients were safe, and that it didn't do that.

"Legal action related to the sale of the hospital was taken in order to ensure that these patients and their families would still be fully compensated if the sale went through," Jones said Tuesday in a press release. "HCA should have had procedures in place to ensure that the doctors it hired were qualified. There were numerous red flags in Dr. King's credentials that were either overlooked or ignored.

"HCA allowed Dr. King to practice at its hospital, and as a result there are more than 100 pending medical malpractice cases against King and the facility. HCA failed in its responsibility to ensure that Dr. King was qualified. It must not fail in its responsibility to compensate the patients that he maimed and killed."

Harvey Peyton, a Putnam County attorney and former president of the WVTLA, agreed, saying the hospital only can blame itself for its situation.

"It's placing the blame on the injured party for their own negligence," said Peyton, who is not involved in any of the King cases. "There wasn't a lawyer responsible for putting him (King) on the staff. In fact, their own doctors are the ones who grew suspicious of this guy."

When King arrived in West Virginia, he had medical malpractice suits pending against him in Michigan, Oklahoma, New Jersey and Florida. And, he already had been involved in suits in Alabama.

According to published reports, King had been fired from one hospital and arrested in Florida after he stole patient records from an operating room. He was not accredited by the nation's two leading professional boards for osteopaths and medical specialists. The board that he listed for his certification as an orthopedist is not even recognized by the American Osteopathic Association.

Also, King claimed he had completed a residency at one hospital, but he would have been just 8 years old based on the dates given. He also was denied privileges at St. Francis -- another HCA hospital -- before he went to Putnam General.

"Anybody who would license him was nuts," Peyton said. "I don't see how in the world they can blame this on trial lawyers."

Officials said Putnam General, which is licensed for 68 beds, has had an employee turnover rate of 33 percent since the beginning of 2005, and its average daily census has dipped to 36 patients, down from 56 in 2003. The hospital has lost $2.4 million since 2005 after being profitable in 2004 and 2003, they said.

On July 14, 2005, HCA announced a definitive agreement had been reached to sell Putnam General, three other West Virginia hospitals and one in Virginia to former subsidiary LifePoint Hospitals, Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn. HCA says attorneys for plaintiffs in the King cases intervened in the Certificate of Public Need process and asked the West Virginia Health Care Authority to block the sale. The deal closed on June 30, 2006, minus Putnam General.

On Tuesday, Lewis said HCA still is "very open" to selling the hospital.

"This county needs this hospital," she said.

Putnam General has about 300 full-time equivalent employees, all of whom will be paid and receive benefits through Sept. 30. They also will be provided with outplacement services, Lewis said.

Putnam General also blamed medical malpractice lawsuits for the closure of its obstetrics unit in 2001.

As soon as news of Tuesday's announcement began to spread, Putnam County officials and leaders vowed to fight to keep the hospital open. Some of their ideas included finding a buyer, appealing to the state Health Care Authority and seeking a court order to block the move. A public meeting is schedule for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Hurricane Parks' community center.

On Wednesday, South Charleston-based Thomas Memorial Hospital publicly expressed interest in buying Putnam General.

Also on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the Internal Revenue Service has subpoenaed Putnam General for billing records involving King.

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