By JEFFREY T. JONES
CHARLSTON -- The West Virginia Record's recent editorial (Aug. 7) on HCA's decision to close Putnam General Hospital is not only irresponsible, but it also callously advances The Record's position that all corporations should be immune when their reckless disregard for consumer safety leads to injury and death.
The fact remains that there would not be more than 100 pending medical-malpractice suits had HCA kept Dr. John King out of its hospital. HCA was responsible for ensuring that its hospital was safe-and their patients depended on them to do that. HCA failed.
According to the Sunday Gazette-Mail and Charleston Gazette, when Dr. King arrived in West Virginia, he had medical malpractice suits pending against him in four other states -- Michigan, Oklahoma, New Jersey and Florida. He had already been involved in additional suits in a fifth state, Alabama. Shouldn't there be red flags all around a physician who has had malpractice suits filed against him in five states?
In its investigation the Gazette found that King had been fired from one hospital and arrested in Florida for stealing 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. Dr. King claimed that he had completed a residency at one hospital, but King would have been just 8 years old based on the dates given. King had already been denied privileges at St. Francis -- another HCA hospital -- before he received them at Putnam General. Putnam County residents should demand to know why HCA believed that King was good enough for Putnam, but not Kanawha.
The Gazette also reported that in his few months at Putnam General, King allegedly hacked off healthy limbs, replaced joints that didn't need replaced, performed hundreds of needless surgeries and killed two people. He let an assistant with a high school diploma -- and nothing else -- see patients and write prescriptions. In HCA's own internal review, another doctor likened him to a snake-oil salesman and criminal. And like someone who had done something wrong, King slipped off into the night, disappearing for nearly three years until earlier this year when he resurfaced in Alabama with a brand new name -- Christopher Wallace Martin.
In his wake, King left immense pain and suffering and a community whose faith in its hospital was shaken to the core. Did HCA do anything to reassure Putnam residents that the hospital was safe and that another doctor like King would never again be allowed to practice there? No. HCA alone is responsible for its mess and should have cleaned it up -- not tell Putnam residents to blame the patients that King butchered.
What is even more outrageous is that The Record believes that these victims are pleased that it happened so they could hit the big bucks through so-called "jackpot justice." The Record claims people wanted to have their healthy limbs cut off or be unable to walk in order to get a check. Does The Record really believe that those patients went into that hospital and willingly traded their health for a lifetime of pain and disability for a few bucks? Which arm or leg are you willing to give up for a "cool million?" Would you let your spouse or children be killed or maimed for $ 2-3 million dollars? Get out of your ivory tower and live in the real world. Talk to these people that have been maimed and disabled and who are suffering in pain every hour of every day of their lives and see how many of them, if given the choice, would rather have their health back instead of money.
In addition, why does The Record claim that there are $50 and $100 million med-mal verdicts in this state? I challenge you to point to one. You can't, because there aren't any. That is an absolute lie, and you know it. The Record is using those outrageous figures in its unmitigated, relentless attempt to scare people into giving up the rights promised to them in the U. S. Constitution.
We also shouldn't overlook actual billions in "expenses" that HCA is passing on to its patients in terms of higher healthcare costs. On December 18, 2002, HCA agreed to pay $631 million to the federal government to settle claims that it had committed fraud and systematically overcharged Medicare. This was in addition to $840 million that the company had agreed to pay in 2000, bringing the total to a record $1.7 billion. HCA also paid $17 million in 2002 to settle fraud allegations related to Medicaid. (Washington Post, December 19, 2002)
HCA has also been price-gouging doctors. HCI, a subsidiary of HCA and one of the largest medical malpractice insurers of doctors in the country, has continued to increase its premiums despite a substantial drop in claims payments. The 2004 annual statement for HCI indicates that during the last five years it has steadily increased its premiums, even though its claims payments have steadily dropped. Specifically, it has increased its net premiums from $197 million to $370 million -- by 88 percent -- even though its net claims payments have decreased from $231 million to $158 million -a drop of 32 percent. (2004 HCI Annual Statement)
Why is The Record not reporting that? To fail to do so is an act of journalistic malpractice.
Your comments are not only asinine, but show just how far The Record, which is funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is willing to go to advance its political agenda of corporate profits over people and total immunity for big corporations at any cost-even patients lives.
Jones is president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.