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Tampa Bay Times

Abortion clinics are health care providers, Florida liability bill says

The bill’s author notes that abortion clinics are regulated as health providers by the state. But some abortion rights advocates are noting the irony of the Republican-backed legislation.

Abortion rally

Joey Cousin, a transgender student from Broward county and an opponent of the SB 404,
 known as the "parental consent" bill, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol on Jan. 22, 2020, 

in Tallahassee. [ AILEEN PERILLA | AP ]

By Kirby Wilson - Published Feb. 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers don’t typically like to say abortion services are health care. In fact, in 2020, Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott were co-sponsors of the “Abortion Is Not Health Care Act.”

But a new bill making its way through the Florida Legislature, Senate Bill 74, would provide greater liability protection to health care providers in COVID-19 related lawsuits, including abortion clinics. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the author of the bill, said this is not a political statement: clinics are regulated by the state under the same statute as other health care centers.

Some abortion rights advocates are noting the irony of Republican-led legislation apparently admitting what they have long contended.

“We do believe that abortion rights are health care rights,” said Barbara DeVane of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women at a news conference Monday. “What a bunch of hypocrites in the Capitol, the Republican legislators that say they are anti-abortion, and yet these clinics are on the list.”

The GOP is indeed strongly anti-abortion. The state Legislature last year passed a bill requiring a doctor to get parental consent before terminating the pregnancy of a minor. Despite the objections of abortion rights advocates, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed that bill — one of his top legislative priorities — into law.

So it’s noteworthy that one of Republican leaders’ signature pieces of legislation in 2021 would ensure that abortion clinics are protected from frivolous COVID-19 related lawsuits.

Brandes downplayed the role of abortion clinics in the bill. The senator noted that even if the clinics weren’t listed as health care providers, they would be covered under another bill Brandes is proposing, SB 72. That legislation would give other businesses additional legal protection from COVID-19 related liability.

“It’s just where they fell in the statute,” Brandes said of abortion providers.

There hasn’t been any talk among Republicans about removing abortion clinics’ liability protections from the bill, Brandes added. The bill cleared its first Senate committee last week after nearly two hours of discussion and a party-line vote.

When asked about the protections for abortion clinics at a news conference Monday, DeSantis said he hadn’t seen the bill. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, referred the question back to Brandes.

“Abortion is health care and it absolutely should be included in any effort by the Legislature to define who are the front line health care workers,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. Until 2018, Eskamani was the senior director for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

Some 34 states have enacted liability protections for businesses or health care providers, according to the American Tort Reform Association, which supports such protections.

Attorney William Large, the president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, found that at least nine COVID-19 related lawsuits have already been filed against health care providers in Florida. None of those lawsuits involved abortion providers. (If it becomes law, SB 74 would apply retroactively. However, companies that are sued before the bill is signed into law would not have additional legal protection.)

Opponents of Brandes’ bill have argued that with so few documented lawsuits against health care providers, the extra liability protections are at best unnecessary. At worst, they shield abusive actors that showed little regard for people’s safety during a pandemic.

“The same government that gave little to no direction, that forced the economic reopening of the state outside the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, is asking for a blank check for business owners,” said Rich Templin, the public policy director for the Florida AFL-CIO.

However, Large, who leads an organization backed by the pro-business Florida Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that his list of lawsuits is far from comprehensive.

“There’s not like a centralized database that you could Google to say, ‘Hey, spit out all the COVID-19 lawsuits,” Large said.

It remains to be seen whether health care providers will face a rash of lawsuits. But if those lawsuits come and Brandes’ bill as written is signed into law, abortion providers would be covered.

That fact alone isn’t swaying many of the state’s progressive lawmakers.

“I have concerns about the liability legislation as a whole, no matter who’s listed,” Eskamani said.