Christine Sexton/News Service Florida
TALLAHASSEE --- Lawmakers are poised this year to pass legislation to protect health-care providers and other types of businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
But while the House and Senate unveiled identical bills for non-health care businesses, their proposals aren’t the same when it comes to legal protections for long-term care providers, hospitals, physicians and other parts of the health-care industry.
Chief among the differences are how long legal protections should be in effect, types of COVID-19-related lawsuits that would be limited and whether to require physician affidavits when lawsuits are filed.
A proposed bill (PCB HHS 21-01) the House unveiled Friday would make changes in how lawsuits are filed, including requiring the physician affidavits, but would rescind the changes “one year and one day” after they become effective.
By contrast, the Senate proposal (SB 74), filed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would apply to COVID-19 lawsuits for injuries that occur up to one year after the end of a declared state or federal public health emergency, whichever is later.
The chambers also take different approaches to the types of COVID-19-related claims that would be limited.
The House bill would apply to medical claims filed against nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well medical-malpractice claims. It also would apply to COVID-19 negligence cases that could be filed against numerous other types of health-care providers, from physicians to federally qualified health centers to pharmacies and clinical laboratories.
The Senate bill, by contrast, defines COVID-19 lawsuits as claims, “whether pled as negligence, breach of contract or otherwise,” alleging that health-care providers failed to follow clinical or government-issued health standards or guidance related to COVID-19; failed to properly interpret or apply the standards or guidance in providing health care, allocation of scarce resources, or assistance with daily living; or failed to follow government-issued health standards or guidance relating to infectious diseases if there were no applicable standards and guidance specific to COVID-19.
In another difference, the House proposal would lead to judges deciding whether defendants made a “good faith effort to substantially comply with any authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance at the time the cause of action accrued.” If judges determine such good-faith efforts were made, defendants would be immune from liability.
Despite the differences, health care lobbyists were quick to praise the House and Senate for the proposals.
“Lawsuits are not the remedy to ensuring high quality care --- they simply divert precious resources away from our care centers and send a dangerous message to the health care heroes on the front lines --- that the clinical, life-saving decisions they made to protect residents will be used against them,” Emmett Reed, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Health Care Association, said in a prepared statement after the release of the House proposal.
Reed’s association, the state’s largest nursing-home industry group, issued similar praise when Brandes filed his bill.
Lawmakers will start the 2021 legislative session March 2, and lawsuit limits for health-care providers and other types of businesses are a top priority for Republican leaders.
Chris Nuland , a Jacksonville attorney and lobbyist for physician groups, said both the House and Senate bills take steps to protect “health care heroes” from lawsuits stemming from the pandemic, which has killed 27,815 Florida residents, according to the latest state data.
Nuland praised the House’s proposal for specific inclusion of medical malpractice claims.
"This is an excellent piece of legislation. Should this pass, the health care providers who risked their lives treating patients, or were told they could not legally treat patients, would not be punished for doing the right thing,” Nuland said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.
There are some changes, however, physician associations would like to see in the House proposal.
“Ideally, the bill would not sunset in one year, as we have no idea how long this pandemic will last,” Nuland said of one of the potential changes to the measure.
Health care providers have been calling for protections from COVID-19-related lawsuits for nearly a year. The Florida Medical Association, the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association and the Florida Justice Reform Institute in March 2020 requested that Gov. Ron DeSantis issue an executive order protecting physicians from medical-malpractice lawsuits for care provided during the pandemic.
Hospitals and nursing homes quickly followed suit, sending a letter to the governor on April 3 asking for immunity from civil and criminal liability for “any harm or damages alleged to have been sustained as a result of an act or omission in the course of arranging for or providing health care services” during the pandemic.
Under the House’s proposal a plaintiff couldn’t file a COVID-19 lawsuit against a health care provider without first getting an affidavit from a state-licensed physician attesting that the claim was the result of the defendant’s actions. The Senate bill does not have such a requirement.
The affidavit requirement in the House bill is identical to one in the bills that would shield other types of businesses from COVID-19 liability. Those bills (HB 7 and SB 72) are being fast-tracked through legislative committees, but the affidavit requirement has drawn objections from House and Senate Democrats.
Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large said the affidavit requirement mirrors those in laws governing how medical malpractice lawsuits are filed.
“We want to make sure it’s not taken away,.” said Large, whose business-backed group lobbies on a variety of issues aimed at limiting lawsuits.
While the House and Senate bills include differences, they also have similarities. As an example, both proposals would require plaintiffs to file complaints within one year after such things as a COVID-19 illnesses or deaths occur. If such a cause of action “accrued” before the legislation takes effect, the plaintiff would have one year to file a lawsuit.