Florida House moves forward on health care liability protections for COVID

A health care worker works at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site in Miami on Wednesday, Nov. 18. (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a bipartisan vote, a House panel on Wednesday agreed to move forward with a bill that would make it harder to sue nursing homes, hospitals and physicians because of alleged negligence related to COVID-19.

Members of the House Health & Human Services Committee voted 17-3 to introduce a proposal (PCB HHS 21-01) for the 2021 legislative session, which will begin March 2. The move was a first step in delivering on the Republican-led Legislature’s priority of shielding health-care providers from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Four of the seven Democrats on the committee supported introducing the proposal as a bill, based on Chairwoman Colleen Burton’s assurances that she will keep an open door and work with lawmakers who have concerns.

“It’s a complicated issue, and it’s an emotional issue, and it’s only a six-page bill,” Burton,  R-Lakeland, said before Wednesday’s vote.

Rep. Christopher Benjamin, an attorney from Miami Gardens, was one of the Democrats who voted in favor of the bill. After the meeting, he cited Burton’s commitment to continue to work with members.

“What people like to do in this process is hope that as it travels through the committee process that they will allow improvements,” Benjamin said. “So we let it go forward so maybe in the next committee … they will tag on an amendment or two because they listened between meetings to what the people were saying. If that doesn’t happen, my yes vote may become a no vote.”

The bill was supported by nursing homes, hospitals, insurance companies and  physicians.

The Florida Justice Association, a group that represents trial attorneys, and the Florida AFL-CIO opposed the measure. AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said the bill does nothing to protect health-care workers who the Legislature has championed as heroes.

“This bill isn’t for them,” Templin said.

The proposal would give health-care providers increased protections from COVID-19 lawsuits by patients and residents alleging medical malpractice or violations of rights as long-term care residents.

Under the proposal, a plaintiff would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant was grossly negligent, reckless or committed intentional misconduct. The bill also would decrease a statute of limitations in COVID-19 medical claims to one year. Medical-malpractice claims currently have a two-year statute of limitations.

The proposal  also would provide liability protections for non-medical negligence claims against health care providers, similar to protections contained in another bill (HB 7) that limits COVID-19- related lawsuits against non-health care businesses. That includes requiring plaintiffs to obtain attestations from physicians that plaintiffs’ COVID-19 was due to the conduct of the defendants.

The Senate has introduced a bill (SB 74) to provide immunity to health care providers, but the bill is not identical to the House proposal.

While some Democrats on the committee supported the House proposal, Rep. Michele Rayner D-St. Petersburg, opposed it.

“I represent consumers. I represent patients. I represent hard-working people. And my concern is, I understand we are in an unprecedented time,” Rayner said. “And I understand we have to make adjustments, but let’s not do it at the cost of making sure people who are truly injured by bad actors are not able to recover.”

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