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Mississippi Doctors Walk Out

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has met with Gulf Coast physicians who walked off the job this week to protest the high cost of malpractice insurance.

The walkout has caused a freeze on emergency surgeries at Garden Park, Memorial Hospital and Hancock Medical Center.

Employees at the hospitals have found themselves assigned to new duties as administrators try to keep them busy.

"Our hope is that with the governor down there visiting and meeting with the doctors today, that the doctors will go back to work," Musgrove Chief of Staff Bill Renick said.

The Mississippi Senate was expected to vote Friday on a plan to provide medical malpractice insurance for doctors and hospitals that are doing without. Details of how to create a risk pool were still being discussed Thursday.

The protest began Monday. Next Monday, as many as four thousand doctors in New Jersey are expected to follow with their own walkout.

Gulf Coast Medical Center is still performing surgeries and has not significantly altered its staff assignments, a spokesman said. Also, surgeons at Biloxi Regional Medical Center still have
insurance and are on the job.

"At this point the hospital is still doing elective surgery, and we're doing everything we can to take care of the patients," said Dr. Alfred McNair, Biloxi Regional's chief of staff.

McNair said Biloxi Regional's doctors support the walkout.

"The point is to get across that this is a major problem in our state," he said.

Though officials vowed to avoid layoffs, they acknowledged that things could change should more surgeons join the ranks of those on leave.

"We're in hopes of a swift resolution to this," said Janet McQueen, a spokeswoman with Hancock Medical Center. "Our wish is to have a minimal impact on our employees and not to disrupt their
livelihoods. But we can only take it as it comes."

Hospital employees acknowledged that many are worried about whether they will still have jobs in the near future, but most said they sympathized with the surgeons.

"It's sad that it had to come down to this, but they have to have insurance if they're going to perform surgery," said Mary Comeaux, a surgical technician at Garden Park Medical Center.

Doctors and insurance companies blame the state's plaintiff-friendly legal climate that has resulted in big dollar damage awards. They say tort reform measures passed by the Legislature last fall - including $500,000 caps on pain-and-suffering awards in malpractice cases - have been slow to help.

Trial lawyers argue that insurance companies are complaining only because their investments have suffered in a weak stock market.