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West Virginia surgeon: Walkout was last resort

Dr. Robert Zaleski, an orthopedic surgeon in West Virginia
Dr. Robert Zaleski, an orthopedic surgeon in West Virginia

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WHEELING, West Virginia (CNN) -- Four West Virginia hospitals remained without all their doctors Thursday as at least 39 surgeons stayed off the job for a second day to protest rising medical malpractice insurance costs.

CNN anchor Daryn Kagan spoke with Dr. Robert Zaleski, an orthopedic surgeon at Wheeling Medical Park Hospital, about the reasons behind his and the other doctors' decision to walk out.

KAGAN: Give us a sense, personally, of just how bad the situation is, first of all in terms of cost. How much does it cost for you to have malpractice insurance every year?

ZALESKI: On average, the last six to seven years, my malpractice premiums have been in the range of $125,000 to $150,000.

KAGAN: And is that paid totally out of your pocket or is it subsidized by a hospital or by part of your practice?

ZALESKI: I am responsible for that, and it is not subsidized by any outside agency.

KAGAN: Now, doctor, give us a sense of just how bad the shortage of doctors is right now. As I understand it, surgeons like yourself have decided not to do any elective surgery and not to take on any new patients, [and] also not to do any emergency surgery.

ZALESKI: I can only speak for myself. I know that the number of qualified surgeons has decreased in this area. It, in my feeling, is a quality-of-care issue. We used to have three neurosurgeons. We now have none. My colleagues, I think, are in the same position that I'm in, and my decision is a personal one in hopes of improving the quality of care to the patients of this area.

KAGAN: So if somebody across the street broke their back and needed spinal surgery, that could not be done at the hospital where you're standing right now? They'd have to go somewhere else?

ZALESKI: At this time it probably would have to go somewhere else unless their life was in danger at that moment, and I'm sure there would be intercession by qualified physicians in this hospital.

KAGAN: Dr. Zaleski, give me a little bit more insight about how you came to this point where you are ready to stop performing surgery. There are definitely some people who would consider that as a doctor it's irresponsible, considering there are people who need care in your area.

ZALESKI: If I should leave because I cannot afford the cost of keeping my office open, the same patients would be without my care. I still look at it as a quality-care issue. My insurance has risen over a factor of a hundred times since I started to work here in 1980. My malpractice [insurance], next year, has already been quoted to be $150,000. I don't have $150,000 available in my checking account, but would have to borrow the amount.

The people of this area have been feeling this issue for several years slowly and gradually. For at least three years, my colleagues and I have taken every normal measure to influence and touch base with the state legislature, to no avail.

KAGAN: And so it's come to this in order to try to get attention for a very serious issue, which ... is not just affecting West Virginia, but doctors and patients all across the country. Dr. Zaleski, thank you for taking time this morning [and] giving us the doctors' perspective. We appreciate it.

ZALESKI: Thank you.

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