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Workers' Comp, budget woes, malpractice await Legislature


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Page: P3D
Byline: Phil Kabler

philk@wvgazette.com A look ahead to the 2003 legislative session Monday showed budget shortages, deficits in Workers' Compensation and Medicaid, a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis and contentious issues including regulation of coal trucks and all-terrain vehicles.

"This next legislative session is going to present as significant a group of challenges as we've faced in this state," Gov. Bob Wise told a session sponsored by the state Associated Press Managing Editors on Monday.

A projected budget shortage of $190 million to $250 million will be the most serious issue facing the Legislature next session, speakers agreed Monday.

"I happen to think we can come out of this stronger and better," Wise said. "This shortfall is presenting us with challenges we needed to face." He said if lawmakers do not restructure state government next session, they will find themselves facing budget deficits each year.

Wise said the administration is looking to make government more efficient, and said some possibilities stand out, such as combining the Governor's Office of Technology with the state Information Services and Communications Division.

"That cries out for merging," he said.

The governor said he also wants to study the possibility of converting regional Division of Motor Vehicles branches into one-stop shops for all state government services, including Health and Human Resources agencies.

One area Wise said he won't cut is economic development.

"If you can't grow, you're always going to be in this downward spiral," he said. "This is absolutely the wrong time to be cutting back on economic development." He called the $200 million-plus of grants given out by the state Economic Development Grant Committee "vitally important," and said critics who propose using the video lottery bond funds to balance the budget are shortsighted.

"I think we're going to get more bang from the buck from the jobs created," he said.

Administration Secretary Greg Burton said the current budget crunch could be exacerbated if Circuit Judge Arthur Recht rules that the state must increase spending on public education by as much as $43 million a year.

"You're looking at massive layoffs if that decision comes down," said Burton. If it doesn't, he said, layoffs of state employees will be held to a minimum in the 2003-04 budget.

Other key issues for the upcoming legislative session: s Medical malpractice insurance. Wise said he believes the program run by the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management, which will provide coverage to more than 1,100 doctors by the end of the year, has stanched the flow of doctors out of West Virginia.

House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming, said he believes lawmakers will seek a "comprehensive, complete fix" to the malpractice insurance crisis - "where everyone pays, where everyone hurts." He compared it to the comprehensive reform of Workers' Compensation in 1995.

Staton said he would like to see West Virginia join a consortium of states, both for multi-state malpractice coverage, and for laws that are consistent from state to state.

State Republican Chairman Kris Warner said he sees bipartisan support for a Republican-backed malpractice reform program using California law as a model, including capping non-economic damages at $250,000.

Staton said, regardless of whether the blame lies with the legal system, providers or the insurance industry, there is no question there is a health-care crisis in the state.

"It does certainly exist. There are doctors leaving the state," he said s Overweight coal trucks. After seeing his bill to increase legal weight limits while increasing enforcement die in a legislative deadlock this summer, Wise said he is trying to find a consensus on the issue.

"This is one of the more intractable issues out there," he said.

Staton noted that an amendment to reduce the maximum 120,000-pound limit to the current legal limit of 80,000 pounds passed by one vote in the House this summer.

"I haven't looked at the lay of the land after the election to see if that changed at all," he said s ATV regulation. Staton said the spate of fatal ATV accidents this year may finally lead lawmakers to regulate the four-wheelers. Staton said he prefers enacting manufacturers' recommendations, including requiring helmets, restricting usage on paved roads and requiring riders to be age 16 or older s Workers' Compensation unfunded liability. Warner said he is suspicious that reports indicating the unfunded liability in Workers' Comp is some $600 million larger than previous estimates came out only after the November general election.

"I would have relished the thought of how many delegates and senators we might have elected Nov. 5 if that had come out before," he said.

"There's no good time to announce you've got an additional $600 million shortfall," Wise responded, saying there was no attempt to delay the disclosure.

Wise said he believes an expedited claims process and more aggressive workplace safety programs could help reduce the backlog.

To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, use e-mail or call 348-1220.

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