Physicians and health facilities that provide voluntary care to low-income patients would have state protection for liability lawsuits under a bill being considered in the Wyoming Senate.

The bill — Senate File 66 — would allow the Wyoming Department of Health to contract with volunteer health providers and facilities to make them state employees. That way, the state would “have the duty to defend a health care provider alleged to have been negligent” in delivering care.

The voluntary health providers or facilities would have to offer care to low-income patients, meaning people with an income at or beneath 200 percent of the current federal poverty line, according to the bill.

The measure — originally sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee — was approved by two Senate subcommittees and is currently set to be considered by the entire body.

The liability of volunteer physicians has been a concern of the medical community, said Stefan Johansson, the policy administrators for the health department.

“I expect there has been hesitation” to provide volunteer care, agreed Kevin Bohnenblust, the executive director of the Wyoming Board of Medicine. “That’s the nature of the times we live in.”

The bill would cost about $50,000 a year for the health department to administer, Johansson said. Bohnenblust said the medical board supported a provision within the bill that would allow health care providers to receive continuing education credit “for the performance of volunteer health care services to low-income persons.”

The bill would seek to help low-income Wyomingites who have no insurance or whose coverage has been denied by the insurer. Johansson said it would be “an arrow in the quiver” to give protection to those people. Health Department Director Tom Forslund expressed support for the idea, committee meeting minutes show.

Rep. Eric Barlow, a Gillette Republican, said at the judiciary committee’s June meeting that “this bill may bring more volunteers into the system that are presently retired.”

Pete Gosar, the executive director of Laramie’s Downtown Clinic, which serves low-income and uninsured patients, said that the bill was a good idea. But he said that if lawmakers wanted to provide health care to Wyomingites in need, they should expand Medicaid.

Johansson said it wasn’t clear how many Wyomingites seeking care would benefit from the bill. He stressed that the health department was not taking a stance on the measure.

“How large of an impact it will have on our state and to the uninsured, it’s hard to say” he said. “Certainly not to the extent of Medicaid expansion,” which would affect upwards of 20,000 people here.

The bill would effectively shift some of the responsibility to care for low-income Wyomingites to volunteers, Gosar said, rather than providing a more universal form of coverage. He said that could be achieved by broadening the spectrum of who can receive Medicaid.

States can choose whether to change the requirements for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Despite repeated attempts by some lawmakers and support from Gov. Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Legislature has rejected Medicaid expansion.

“If you’re not going to expand Medicaid in Wyoming … what is the solution?” said Gosar, a former Democratic candidate for governor. “And this could be a fraction of it, but not a meaningful fraction of it. How do you get people who are working low-wage jobs, how do you get them health insurance?”

He said his clinic would benefit from the bill if it became law. But the downtown clinic is already covered by free, federal liability coverage, he said. He wasn’t sure if that was true for all clinics in the state, though.

The goal of the bill is to provide more Wyomingites the chance to receive care. But Gosar said the proposal likely wouldn’t be beneficial to those living in rural areas.

“In smaller communities, there are one or two doctors, a nurse practitioner, how much more time do they have to give to the community? Is it reasonable to expect that?” he said. “This is not a solution to the working poor in Wyoming, and we need a solution, and we need people who are in leadership positions to find a solution because they’ve turned their back on one solution.”