An Elkins doctor who testified to Congress last summer about his high medical malpractice rates didn’t mention his conviction for cocaine possession in the 1980s.
A national consumer group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is calling for Dr. Samuel Roberts to apologize to Congress for his alleged “misrepresentation of his history of substance abuse.”
Roberts said the group is trying to divert attention from the issue of tort reform.
“This issue has nothing to do with my personal history,” he said. “It has to do with access to health care, and medical malpractice premiums.”
In 1987, Roberts pleaded guilty to five counts of cocaine possession and was sentenced to five years probation. The state Board of Medicine suspended his medical license for one year, then stayed the suspension and placed him on five years supervised probation.
In July, Roberts was one of only three doctors to testify to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about medical malpractice insurance. He represented the American Academy of Family Physicians and was accompanied by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Roberts testified that his malpractice rates had doubled in just one year, and that they were expected to rise again.
“I have families I have delivered eight, nine children for. It makes me sad to know that I’m not going to be able to be there for those families,” he said.
He blamed the increase on the total number of malpractice claims filed in the state, and encouraged Congress to impose caps on pain and suffering awards, like those in California now being considered by the West Virginia Legislature.
Roberts testified that he had never had a malpractice claim filed against him. Two members of Congress said he was an example of a legal system gone amuck.
“He underscores the problems that we have,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. “If the insurance rates are what they are and he has never done anything wrong, what does that say to you?”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., asked if Roberts had his license suspended for anything, and if that might affect his premiums.
“I had a situation 15 years ago, sir,” Roberts replied. “It’s a personal matter that’s really not germane to the issue. And it does not affect my medical malpractice claims if that’s your question.”
In a Tuesday interview, Roberts said when he was insured by Pennsylvania-based PHICO, he paid $17,000 a year, but his rates jumped to $36,000 last year and $59,000 this year under the state-run plan, BRIM.
Roberts reiterated that his former conviction and disciplinary action by the Board of Medicine did not affect his malpractice rates.
But Tamara Lively, manager of the Health Care Liability Division of BRIM, said that a disciplinary action by the state Board of Medicine does affect a doctor’s medical malpractice premiums, even if that doctor has never been sued.
According to Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Roberts misled Congress about the malpractice situation in West Virginia by not volunteering information about his license suspension and its effect on his malpractice premiums.
“This is the equivalent of a convicted drunk driver complaining to Congress that his auto insurance has gone up,” Court said.
Court also tied Roberts’ testimony to the current walkout by doctors in the Northern Panhandle.
He cited a story by The Associated Press that showed that eight of the doctors walking out of Wheeling Hospital — almost half of those striking from that facility — have cost their insurers more than $4 million in malpractice claims in the last 10 years.
“The doctors screaming the loudest for relief from legal accountability have the most to be accountable for,” Court said. “A guy like Roberts should be paying a lot more for malpractice insurance.”
Dr. Roberts testified to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on July 14, 2002 in support of HR 4600, the HEALTH Act of 2002. His testimony can be found here: http://energycommerce.house.gov/107/hearings/07172002Hearing648/hearing.htm
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.