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Beware the bloodmobile chasers' bill

Some Florida trial lawyers smell blood.

Or is it money?

Either way, they are the driving force behind a mischievous little piece of legislation that could threaten the state's fragile blood supply.

The distribution of blood is a necessary part of the practice of medicine, and like all medical procedures, it carries some element of risk. Blood banks and other medical facilities involved in that process already are held to the same standards of negligence and malpractice that govern the rest of the medical profession. However, the Legislature is now considering bills that would make it easier to sue blood banks by placing them under laws governing general negligence. That would effectively erase the so-called "blood shield" statute that exempts them from liability for any disease that a blood recipient might contract from a transfusion that is properly performed according to accepted scientific procedures.

That exemption was approved 23 years ago, before it was possible to test potential blood donors for hepatitis, which at that time presented a common risk for patients receiving a transfusion. More recently, of course, those involved in the procurement and use of donated blood have had to respond to the far deadlier threat of AIDS. Since 1985, when an effective test for the HIV virus was put into use, the risk of contracting AIDS through a transfusion has been greatly reduced but not entirely eliminated.

Of course, nothing in the legislation being pushed by the trial lawyers would eliminate the small risk that remains. The lawyers raise valid questions about the current four-year statute of limitations, which may harm people who do not discover that they are HIV-positive until years after being contaminated. However, that problem could be resolved quite simply without resorting to this sweeping change. This is primarily about money, not medicine. That's why the bills' proponents have chosen to route the legislation through commerce and judiciary committees instead of those responsible for health care.

Because medical science remains imperfect, this legislation would leave blood banks more vulnerable to liability for any diseases transmitted despite their best efforts to screen for them in the blood supply. The resulting effects on Florida's already inadequate blood supply could be disastrous. Not-for-profit blood banks could find themselves paying staggering insurance premiums, assuming they could afford them at all. That could cause the cost of health care to rise even more dramatically than it already has. Potential blood donors, who theoretically could be exposed to new liability as well, could disappear.

But a handful of lawyers would be given a new way to profit from the misfortune of patients who fall victim to the small risk that is inherent in this essential medical procedure. That explains why they're pushing these unnecessary, and potentially ruinous, changes.

And trial lawyers have a powerful lobby that contributes generously to many legislators' campaigns. Blood banks don't. That explains why a lot of our honorables in Tallahassee are supporting this exercise in self-interest.