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W.Va. high court: Public hospital violated open-meetings law

By The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia's nonprofit and government-run hospitals cannot exclude the public and doctors from decision-making meetings, the state high court unanimously affirmed yesterday.

The ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned a February 2006 Kanawha County Circuit Court decision. The circuit court determined that meetings held by Charleston Area Medical Center's medical staff executive committee were exempt from the Open Hospital Proceedings Act. The lower court ruled that only CAMC's board of trustees meetings were subject to the law.

The medical staff executive committee is comprised of elected members from the hospital's various departments. It has authority over medical staff functions and improving the performance of individuals with clinical privileges. The committee's meetings have been closed the public and to members of CAMC's medical staff who are not on the committee.

Yesterday's ruling in Hamrick v. Charleston Area Medical Center marked the second time this week that the high court dealt with a dispute between CAMC and Dr. R.E. Hamrick Jr. On Feb. 27, the justices refused to hear CAMC's appeal of a 2005 Kanawha County Circuit Court ruling that upheld Hamrick's right to provide his own medical malpractice insurance.

The latest ruling stemmed from Hamrick's attempt to appear before the medical staff executive committee to explain his medical malpractice plan.

In writing for the court, Justice Larry Starcher said since CAMC's board of trustees relied on the medical committee's input and recommendations, the committee fell within the scope of the open-hospital act.

Starcher wrote the act's purpose "is to ensure that the public may observe in a meaningful fashion the decision-making processes of nonprofit hospitals."

Also, flexible and commonsense interpretations should be applied because the law's definition of governing body is not limited to a single, ultimate decision-making body.

CAMC spokesman Dale Witte said the hospital would abide by the ruling, but that it may place a chilling effect on the medical committee's ability to discuss patient care.

"We disagree with the court's decision," Witte said. "The governing body of CAMC is the board of trustees and the board of trustees complies with all the open-meetings laws."

Hamrick's lawyer, Karen Miller, said the ruling would "make a world of difference for the doctors in this state."

"I think now the doctors will be able to speak out and be able to get the medical care they need for their patients," she said.


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