Coronavirus patients and their families who believe a doctor, nurse, hospital or other provider made serious mistakes during their care may face a new hurdle if they try to file medical malpractice lawsuits.
Under pressure from health provider organizations, governors in Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois and several other states have ordered that most providers be shielded from civil ― and, in some cases, criminal — lawsuits over medical treatment during the COVID-19 health emergency. In New York and New Jersey, immunity is now part of state law. In California, six hospital, physician and long-term care provider groups are pressing Gov. Gavin Newsom to also issue an order assuring immunity.
The efforts are attracting congressional attention as well and threatening to derail the next federal coronavirus stimulus package on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is demanding that Congress include liability protections against COVID-related suits for businesses and health care providers. The contentious issue of legal liability claims in health care has divided congressional Republicans and Democrats for years.
“We are not going to let health care heroes emerge from this crisis facing a tidal wave of medical malpractice lawsuits so that trial lawyers can line their pockets,” the Kentucky Republican said in the Senate on Tuesday. “This will give our doctors, nurses and other health care providers a lot more security as they clock in every day and risk themselves to care for strangers.”
A coalition of 36 physician and hospital associations has appealed as well to congressional leaders for federal legislation.
Some legal experts and seniors’ advocates worry that the state immunity guarantees go too far, leaving patients with no way to hold providers accountable. Supporters argue that health care providers and facilities deserve protection from lawsuits as they battle a deadly virus during an unprecedented public health emergency.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, joined the movement last week, acknowledging that the COVID-19 epidemic has “required our health care providers to broaden their professional responsibilities and experiences like never before.” Like other governors, Wolf included in his order exceptions for the most egregious lapses in care involving intentional misconduct or extreme negligence.
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