by Malia Rulon
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- West Virginians would have expanded rights against health maintenance organizations, better protection against abuse and improved access to rural health care under several bills passed by the Legislature this year.
Other bills would cut paperwork and taxes for doctors and other health care practitioners, and enact the first state tax on smokeless tobacco.
"Health care fared really, really well this session," House Health and Human Resources Chairwoman Mary Pearl Compton said. "We are doing some good things for citizens and health care and things that are long overdue in West Virginia."
Paul Nusbaum, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, agreed. He said not only did significant legislation pass this year, but "we got some significant programs included in our budget."
One program with a $7 million price tag will enable DHHR to provide Medicaid coverage to children annually instead of on a monthly basis.
Of about 200 health care bills proposed by lawmakers during the 2001 legislative session, about 35 passed, including the 7 percent smokeless tobacco tax, which has been pushed for at the state Capitol for the last decade. However, Gov. Bob Wise and others had lobbied for a 25 percent tax.
"It's not what I wanted," Nusbaum said. "But it's the first time in 23 years that we have had a tobacco tax pass in West Virginia, so it's a heck of a victory for the governor."
Wise signed several other health care bills into law on Monday, including his proposed Patients' Bill of Rights, the Patient Safety Act, legislation to expand the statewide cancer registry to include cranial and central nervous system tumors, and a bill to create the nursing shortage study commission.
The Patients' Bill of Rights gives patients the right to sue their health maintenance organization for coverage if an independent review panel rules in their favor.
"It puts the doctor and patient in charge rather than an HMO," said Compton, D-Monroe.
She said the Patient Safety Act is also "one of the more outstanding bills that we passed." It protects health care workers who work directly with patients from being fired or demoted when they report waste, wrongdoing or abuses at the health care facility where they work.
West Virginia Medical Association spokeswoman Amy Tolliver said in addition to bills that directly affect patient care, the Legislature passed bills that ensure doctors receive prompt payment from insurance companies and create a uniform health care credentialing system, which make it easier on doctors to provide care.
"It's time consuming and costly," she said about the credentialing system. "And if it takes a long time to get a doctor credentialed, he can't see patients."
Tolliver said the Medical Association was also pleased that lawmakers approved a measure to phase out over 10 years the 2 percent tax on health care providers' gross income, even though the industry had pushed for a four-year repeal.
"We feel very strongly that it's an unfair tax," she said, adding that the coalition of health care practitioners formed this year to lobby against the tax plans to "come back next year and advocate for a quicker repeal."
Tolliver said although the association was disappointed the Legislature didn't deal with medical malpractice rates, which are higher than in most other states, it was pleased lawmakers passed a resolution to study the issue.
Doctors had swarmed the Capitol during the session to bring attention to the situation. Many said without relief from the high rates, they would be forced to leave the state.
"We're on a verge of a true crisis," Tolliver said.
Wise legislative director Keith Burdette said the administration was disappointed the Legislature didn't pass a bill to allow a Prepaid Pharmacy Service Organization to offer low-cost prescription drug insurance to residents and small businesses.
Tom Susman, director of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, said the bill would be reintroduced next year.
Nusbaum said another disappointment was the failure of the tobacco retailer bill, which could cause West Virginia to lose $3.5 million in federal funding because its sales to underage users top the nationally accepted rate.
"It's a potentially significant problem," Nusbaum said. "We're going to have to do a lot more to make sure we don't lose that. I guess we can ask the state retailers to do a better job following the law."
West Virginia Hospital Association President Steven Summer said he was pleased the Legislature is at least studying two other important issues: the impending nursing shortage and small and rural hospitals, which have been struggling financially since Medicare cut its reimbursement rates in 1997.
These study commissions "represent a recognition of two serious problems for us," Summer said.