TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The House Health & Human Services Committee on Thursday conducted its first -- and last -- workshop on COVID-19 liability protections for health care providers.
The committee heard from representatives of hospitals, physicians and long-term care facilities who said the Legislature needs to make changes to protect them from a potential flood of lawsuits, while trial attorneys said current law provides adequate protections and that providing immunity will do more harm than good.
The discussion came after the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee on Wednesday voted 11-6 along party lines to approve a bill (HB 7) that would offer COVID-19 liability protections for businesses. But that bill does not include health care providers, setting the stage for a separate debate about the health care industry.
While the issues in both House panels centered on liability protections, some lawmakers have wondered whether the Legislature should also consider providing protections to workers who were exposed to COVID-19 on the job.
Supporters of shielding health care providers from lawsuits point to the roles they have played during the pandemic.
Amanda Maggard, president and CEO of AdventHealth Zephyrhills and AdventHealth Dade City, told the Health & Human Services Committee that hospitals and their front-line staff stepped into harm’s way.
Hospitals have faced significant challenges, from a lack of personal protective equipment to thinly stretched staff. Despite that, Maggard said hospitals have been at the forefront in such things as helping nursing homes care for patients with COVID-19. She also said county health departments and local governments have relied on hospitals for guidance and support.
“Leadership at the front line comes with risks,” she said. “In these unprecedented times, we urge you to help us mitigate these risks. The pandemic has forced changes in the delivery of care, and the liability implications are immense without greater protection.”
The Republican-led Legislature is expected to fast-track lawsuit limitations during the 2021 session, which starts March 2. Just how far the House and Senate go with those protections, however, remains to be seen.
Health & Human Services Chairwoman Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said Thursday’s discussion would be the only workshop held by her committee. Burton also said she expected any bill related to health care liability protections to come from a member and not the committee.
Physicians, hospitals and nursing homes were among the first groups to call for lawsuit protections during the pandemic, but they weren’t included in the bill that cleared the House subcommittee on Wednesday or in the Senate version of that bill (SB 72).
Coral Springs physician Jason Goldman told members of the Health & Human Services Committee about worries that a government-ordered shutdown of elective procedures and preventive screenings during the early stages of the pandemic will lead to an increase in litigation.
“It put the patients at risk for other conditions, even though we were trying to stop the spread of the pandemic. So patients were not able to get their routine procedures and evaluations. And what I am seeing months later is diagnoses for cancer and other conditions that had to be delayed for obvious reasons,” Goldman said. ”And I worry about the liability, that they are going to now go on to claim there was a delay in their cancer diagnosis through no fault of my own or the medical profession but because we are in a pandemic and everything had to be shut down.”
But Jacksonville trial attorney Thomas S. Edwards said health care providers already have legal protections, such as pre-suit requirements before medical-malpractice claims can be filed.
Also, Edwards said that “if a doctor can’t get PPE (personal protective equipment), or can’t get their staff in because people are in quarantine, we can’t sue for that.”
Goldman told the committee he was worried that his staff was getting exposed to COVID-19 while on the job.
“As we know, some patients are without any symptoms, while others are extremely ill. I don’t turn anyone away,” he said. ”With that, I still have to protect my staff as well as myself, and the issue of a patient coming in and either not being truthful with their symptoms or not knowing they have COVID symptoms puts them at great risk and puts us at great risk. So I worry that there may be an issue of my staff being exposed as well as myself being exposed and the potential liability of that.”
While Edwards didn’t agree the Legislature should limit lawsuits, he sympathized with Goldman about workplace safety. He told committee members they might want to consider making changes to workers' compensation laws to better protect workers during the pandemic.
Data compiled by the state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis' office show that 25,784 COVID-19-related workers' compensation claims had been filed as of Nov. 30. Nearly 44 percent of those claims had been denied, according to the report. Of the denied claims, more than 44 percent were filed by health care workers and protective services, which includes first responders.
“You need to address that. Our health care workers deserve better than that,” Edwards said. ”And if they get sick while they are forced to go on the front lines to deal with people with COVID every day, they should get protection through workers' comp.”
Burton said she wasn’t aware that workers' compensation claims were being denied but said it was one of ”many questions that’s going to have to be answered moving forward.”