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Proposal would extend protections for health care providers against COVID-19 lawsuits

State Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills
News Service of Florida
Judiciary Chairman Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said the bill seeks to “ensure health care providers do not become targets of extensive litigation as a result of the pandemic.”

The state Senate Judiciary Committee backed a proposal that would help shield Florida health providers from lawsuits until June 1, 2023.

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Florida Senate panel Tuesday approved extending pandemic-related legal protections for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.

The proposal (SPB 7014), backed in a 7-4 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would help shield health providers from lawsuits until June 1, 2023. Lawmakers during this spring’s legislative session passed a bill that offered the protections for one year — a period that is set to expire March 29, 2022.

Judiciary Chairman Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said the bill seeks to “ensure health care providers do not become targets of extensive litigation as a result of the pandemic.”

“As our frontline workers are out there doing God’s work, protecting us and keeping us safe, we just want to make sure they are not looking over their shoulders as they are doing everything they can in an uncertain global pandemic,” Burgess said.

But Stephen Cain, a Miami attorney representing the Florida Justice Association trial lawyers group, objected to the extension.

“Nursing homes, ALFs (assisted living facilities) and hospitals should be held accountable for following appropriate infection control policies,” Cain said. “This disincentivizes health care providers from doing the things that are necessary to help us end this pandemic.”

The bill is filed for the 2022 legislative session, which will start in January. The Judiciary Committee vote came days after news of the emerging omicron variant of the coronavirus refueled concerns about taming the pandemic.

Lawmakers moved quickly during the 2021 session to pass pandemic-related legal protections (SB 72) for health care providers and other businesses. The protections addressed lawsuits involving issues such as transmission of COVID-19 and treatment of people with COVID-19.

While lawmakers put a one-year limit on the health-care industry protections, they did not include such a limit — known as a “sunset” — on the business protections, Burgess said.

Health care providers can still face COVID-19 lawsuits, but the legal protections, for example, require a higher standard of proof for plaintiffs. In such cases, plaintiffs have to prove “by the greater weight of the evidence that the health care provider was grossly negligent or engaged in intentional misconduct.”

Also, health care providers are shielded from lawsuits if they can offer “affirmative” defenses, such as compliance with government-issued health standards.

The bill Tuesday was backed by numerous health care and business organizations, such as the Florida Hospital Association, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association, LeadingAge Florida, the Florida Senior Living Association, the Florida Assisted Living Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

But Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who opposed the bill, pointed to problems with health care workers not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

Lawmakers during a special session this month passed a bill to bar vaccination mandates in the state. Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashley Moody has gone to court to fight a federal vaccination requirement for health workers, as many providers say such a mandate would exacerbate staffing shortages.

“What’s going on in health care is that the staff is not fully vaccinated, and it’s a huge problem,” Polsky said. “I understand the concerns about losing staff, but when you have in a nursing home a captive audience, it’s the staff coming in and out who are potential spreaders of COVID.”

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Jim Saunders and Tom Urban - News Service of Florida