A Senate priority bill to limit the liability of Florida doctors ran into trouble in the House on Monday when opponents suggested that it could be used by insurance companies who represent the doctors to create a private registry of gun owners.
The bill, HB 827, would deal with what are known as "ex parte communications" in malpractice cases and would allow lawyers for doctors hit with a malpractice claim to interview any other doctor about a patient's health record in private.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, believes that the provision could open the door to lawyers asking doctors about the gun-toting habits of their patients and, over time, use that information to build a database of gun owners who could be charged higher insurance rates.
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Grant filed an amendment Monday to prohibit doctors from revealing any information about a patient's gun ownership, as well as any history of child abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental health and reproductive history unless the patient's lawyer is present. It was enough to threaten the provisions of the bill so House leaders postponed the high profile debate.
"Given some of the concerns with physicians keeping records of firearms, I don't think they should be in the hands of an insurance company without a lawyer or claimant being present,'' Grant said.
He suggested that absent his amendment, insurance companies will attempt to plumb the doctors' records of patients to capture information and raise premium rates for people and businesses who carry guns.
"If insurance truly is the calculation of risk against profit-- meaning all of these risk factor make it more or less likely that a claim is going to happen -- is it more likely that bodily injury could happen in a house that has guns? Absolutely,'' he said.
But supporters of the bill said the last-minute claims had nothing to do with medical malpractice and were a last-ditch effort to scuttle the bill. The Senate has already passed the provision as part of a broader bill, SB 1792, that would also place additional restrictions on expert witnesses in lawsuits.
"The intent of the sponsors of those amendments was to bounce the bill then turmoil generally ensues,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House sponsor.
The Senate plan is a top priority of his father, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, but it is vigorously opposed by the Florida Justice Association, whose lobbying team includes Grant's father, former state senator John Grant.
"Matt Gaetz and I are going toe-to-toe,'' said Grant, the son. "His dad's number two priority is this bill and my dad lobbies for the FJA so I'm sure people will talk about it."
Both Grant and Gaetz deny they are working on behalf of their fathers.
Grant said that he and his dad "don't discuss bills that he lobbies….We keep a very bright line in between it."
Gaetz said he has filed bills to limit doctor's liability on medical malpractice for years. "My dad and I have both fought for medical malpractice litigation reform during our tenure in the legislature,'' he said.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is pursuing the bill said he considers the last-minute attempt to use gun-owners to sabotage the bill a dirty trick.
"I much prefer to get stabbed in the chest than in the back,'' he said. "Nobody wants to have their finger prints on things."
He said he will propose an amendment to appease the concerns of the National Rifle Association that gun owners are being charged higher rates by insurance companies.
"We would like to make sure that gun ownership is not part of the underwriting criteria and these insurance companies don't use gun ownership to underwrite policies,'' he said.