The number of counties without obstetrical care rose from eight to 31 in 1987, despite last year's efforts by the General Assembly to keep obstetricians from leaving the profession because of fears of malpractice suits, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

"It is still a problem," Dr. C.M.G. Buttery, the state's health commissioner, said at a meeting yesterday of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee. "We made a start {with last year's legislation}, but I'm afraid we're going to have to move faster."

The General Assembly last year set up a no-fault fund for malpractice claims made by the families of between 30 and 40 babies born in the state each year with severe brain damage. The fund is financed by fees on doctors and hospitals.

Some delegates said it was too soon to determine what impact last year's legislation would have on keeping malpractice insurance rates down, but Buttery told the committee that more has to be done: "We have got to find some alternative to the current system."

A family doctor who pays $5,000 a year for malpractice insurance may see rates increase to $30,000 if the doctor does obstetrical work, a strong deterrent to providing that type of care, the commissioner said.