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Panel approves lawsuit shield for physicians

A bill that may help poor people obtain medical care _ or may just deprive them of their legal rights _ is making steady progress on both sides of the Legislature.

The House Health Care Committee on Monday approved the Access to Health Care Act, which gives private doctors who treat poor people the same protection from malpractice suits enjoyed by publicly employed doctors. The same legislation has won preliminary approval in the Senate.

The bill is a response to doctors who say the reason they don't treat poor people is that they might be sued. So the bill extends sovereign immunity to doctors who contract with the state to treat poor people, either free or for a Medicaid payment.

Under sovereign immunity, patients who thought they had been wronged by their doctors could not sue the doctors. Instead, they would sue the state for up to $100,000. The private physicians then would have to reimburse the state, unless the doctors received no compensation for the care they provided.

If the patients' injuries were severe, they would have to go to the Legislature and file claims bills _ at taxpayer expense _ to get more money.

Doctors would be eligible for the program in one of two ways: (1) Give at least 10 percent of Medicaid fees to the state to help pay for the program, or (2) Devote at least 10 percent of their practice to people who are poor, but not poor enough for Medicaid.

Under the bill, "poor" means up to 150 percent of the poverty level. That would be an income of $19,500 a year for a family of four.

With a new amendment approved Monday, hospitals and doctors who provide free breast-cancer screening also would be immune from criminal prosecution and civil liability.

John Thrasher, general counsel to the Florida Medical Association, said the bill helps the state provide for the poor without having to build more public-health facilities and hire more public doctors.

"If you had to build all those facilities, you'd have to give (the doctors who work in them) sovereign immunity anyway," he said, adding that many doctors have expressed interest in helping the poor if the bill passes.

But Philip Freidin, president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, cited a University of Washington survey indicating that doctors refuse to treat the poor because they can't pay, not because of liability concerns.

So the bill not only would be ineffective, he said, it also would create two kinds of people: those who sue and those who don't.

He was joined in that view by representatives of the NAACP and several predominantly black churches.

"There's one thing for the rich folk and one for the poor folk," said A.

J. Richardson, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Tallahassee. "This says that (poor people's) body parts are worth less."

Richardson said he didn't buy the argument that poor people already cannot sue if they're treated by a public-health doctor.

"This extends immunity to the people that you would be able to recover from," he said.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, said it's time to stop arguing about the bill and see whether it will work.

"The doctors have been telling us they'd come forward if we gave them this," he said.

"If they don't come forward, they're going to get their derrieres handed to them if they ever try to get anything (from the Legislature) again."

The legislation (CS-HB 529) goes next to the Appropriations Committee.

Insurance bill advances

TALLAHASSEE _ Business-backed legislation designed to make health insurance more affordable for small companies moved through a House panel Monday on a 13-0 vote.

The legislation would require insurance companies in the small-group market to guarantee coverage to all customers.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"The doctors have been telling us they'd come forward if we gave them this. If they don't come forward, they're going to get their derrieres handed to them if they ever try to get anything (from the Legislature) again."

REP. GEORGE ALBRIGHT,

R-Ocala

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