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Health Law Attorney Explains The Medical Ethics Behind Rationing Health Care

Ventilators that Florida International University is lending to the state to be used to treat patients affected by Covid-19.
Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in South Florida, some wonder whether there is enough medical equipment, such as ventilators, in local hospitals. Being at full capacity could eventually lead to health care rationing. 


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“This is an essentially human issue and it’s a tragedy,” said Joseph Zumpano, a Miami-based health law attorney.

WLRN spoke with Zumpano about rationing in health care and the medical ethics of making these decisions. 



WLRN: Will or could the COVID-19 pandemic bring about large amounts of cases like these, and is it happening already?

Zumpano: If a resource is unavailable to a physician or a hospital or a health care provider, should they be held negligent for an outcome? And I think at the end of the day that that contextual circumstance would warrant not applying traditional negligence principles. When you have hospitals and health care providers that are doing their best to keep us safe and engaged in what is a battle, in circumstances that are very difficult, there should be respect not only by our policy makers, but by our courts. Where people are risking their lives to save others, there should be a certain amount of deference to those health care providers in those facilities. 

Can someone eventually sue the hospital, or a doctor or a nurse? 

It's not known in the sense that this is the first time this has ever happened. The issue of physician liability can contribute to rationing. Rationing happens every day in our country. Sometimes we understand that it's happening. Sometimes it's unintentional. In the state Medicaid program, there is an essential decision that's made about what's covered and what's not covered in a program. That is a macro level form of rationing. 

But then there's the concept of defensive medicine, or a physician may feel undertaking a particular activity in a particular setting may lead to their liability and you get a defensive moment in the practice of medicine. That, too, is a contributor to rationing, because the result is the person in effect is denied the service. Nobody wants to see negligence, but at the same time, in the middle of a crisis, the threat of unnecessary liability could contribute to shortage and rationing itself.

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During her time at Florida International University, where she recently graduated from with a Bachelors in Journalism, Sherrilyn Cabrera interned for the South Florida News Service - a digital journalism platform where stories are written, shot and edited by FIU students. As part of her senior project, she reported on the influx of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and the impact it could have had on the November 2018 midterm elections.