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Tampa General CEO says COVID-19 liability protections need to be extended

Christine Jordan Sexton - November 18, 2021

'Why would we artificially limit protection that is designed to help us?'

A top executive at one of the state’s largest hospitals says extending COVID-19 liability protections for health care providers should be a top priority for the 2022 Legislative Session that begins in January.

“We need to be protected just like we protected the citizens of this great state,” said Tampa General Hospital President and CEO John D. Couris. “Why would we artificially limit protection that is designed to help us because we didn’t know what we didn’t know back then.”

The COVID-19 liability protections for nursing homes and hospitals and physicians that lawmakers passed earlier this year expire in March. That means for them to remain in effect, lawmakers need to pass additional legislation. The COVID-19 liability protections for general businesses, though, remain in effect.

“We had people coming into our hospital, and not just Tampa General Hospital but hospitals across the state, sick, dying, scared they didn’t know what was happening. We were responding in real time. We were in a firefight. It’s no different than being in a war, right? What we were fighting against. The men and women of health care need to be protected indefinitely because it’s simply the right thing to do.”

Couris made the COVID-19 liability comments in an exclusive interview Wednesday with Florida Politics.

Couris was in Tallahassee, along with TGH health care workers, former patients and their family members, to celebrate Tampa General Hospital and its accomplishments.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, who turned to the hospital and University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine for recommendations on how to safely reopen the Capitol, attended the celebration.

Meanwhile, Couris gave high praise to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the recently negotiated rule-making process it agreed to use to settle disputes over a new proposed regulation for neonatal intensive care units.

AHCA proposed a new rule meant to supplant former certificate of need requirements for neonatal intensive care units, referred to as NICUs, that drew challenges from both Tampa General Hospital and Broward Health, now run by Gov Ron DeSantis’ former chief of staff, Shane Strum.

AHCA withdrew the proposed rule and announced it would, for the first time, take advantage of what’s called “negotiated rule-making.” Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller spent $10,000 to hire a mediator to help negotiate agreed upon rules.

Couris couldn’t be happier.

“I think all of these things should be done exactly that way. I was very proud of the men and women. I was very proud of AHCA and our state leaders who made it happen. I was very proud of that process. And the reason I was proud of that process is because physicians and physician scientists, sat around the table and debated what was best for the state of Florida using science,” he said.

Continued Couris, “That’s how it should be done. It shouldn’t be litigated in a court. It shouldn’t, quite frankly, be legislated. It should be decided and designed by people on the front lines. And what AHCA did, and what our state leaders created, was a process in an environment where physician scientists could come together and debate the science and create the rules. I, quite frankly, think it’s a best-in-class approach. And my hope is they do more of this. Not less of it.”

Several other health care leaders and lawsuit reform advocates have called for the Legislature to push back the sunset of the health care liability protections. In mid-September, Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large told Florida Politics the law “needs to be extended until the crisis abates.”

And Jacksonville health care lawyer and specialty physician lobbyist Chris Nuland said Florida doctors also need continued protection from medical malpractice lawsuits “unless the pandemic quickly and permanently subsides.”

The COVID-19 liability protections shield health care facilities and providers from lawsuits so long as they made a “good-faith effort” to substantially comply with government health guidelines. Moreover, a plaintiff would need to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant acted with “gross negligence” when filing a COVID-19-related lawsuit.

The legislation was one of the top priorities of business groups and Republican lawmakers in the first half of the 2021 Legislative Session. Proponents of the measure argued that businesses and providers navigated the pandemic’s early stages with conflicting health guidance and saw predatory lawsuits as a looming threat.