SOURCE: Florida Phoenix

For all that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Republican leaders play up their “freedom” agenda at the expense of COVID-19 mitigation, an average Floridian might conclude the coronavirus isn’t such a big deal anymore.

So why are the state House and Senate advancing legislation extending the liability shield enacted last year, to protect health care providers against medical malpractice lawsuits arising from the COVID pandemic?  The shield is scheduled to expire on March 21.

That’s what Democrat Kelly Skidmore of Palm Beach County wanted to know during a House Health and Human Services Committee hearing Friday on a new bill, PCB 22-01, to extend that protection through June 1, 2023.

Skidmore couldn’t help remarking on the “contradictory narrative” between the COVID danger the bill ostensibly recognizes and coolness to mask-wearing and vaccinations expressed by the state’s GOP leaders.

“We keep pushing out that this is over, that we need to be back to normal, and yet we sponsor legislation and we have legislation that extends these liability protections,” she said.

In the end, Skidmore joined the 15-5 majority in approving the legislation.

Colleen Burton, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, who presented the bill, had this explanation:

“Optimistically, I think we all hoped that the pandemic would be in its final stages by this coming March but, unfortunately, we also are quite aware that mutations of the COVID-19 virus continue to prolong the pandemic. It is vitally important that we continue to protect our front-line workers as they fight the pandemic,” Burton said.

Identical legislation (SB 7014) has cleared both the Judiciary and Rules committees in the Senate.

Both versions would make it harder for people injured by medical providers to win compensation in court if the provider can attribute the harm to COVID.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, have been playing down the importance of vaccines and face masks to prevent COVID transmission, even as the omicron variant has produced a spike in infections.

Additionally, the Legislature, at the governor’s behest, in a special session last year required any business mandating workers to get vaccinated to allow exemptions for religious beliefs, medical reasons, and based on immunity derived through previous infections with the coronavirus.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large businesses but allowed a similar mandate for health care workers to take effect.

Republican Ralph Massulo, of Citrus and part of Hernando counties, a medical doctor, noted that the bill’s protections don’t extend to gross negligence by medical practitioners.

Still, the virus continues to mutate and so, therefore, have the standards of care in treating it, he said.

“It will continue to change as this disease evolves — evolves to the point where it will be endemic and, unfortunately, I am sad to say, most of us will have it in some way, shape, or firm, whether it will be symptomatic or not.”

The protection applies to the diagnosis or failure to diagnose COVID-19; provision of experimental treatments; transmission of the virus; delay or cancellation of tests, procedures, or emergency treatment because a facility is overwhelmed with COVID patients; and exacerbation of preexisting conditions by COVID.

Facilities have to be in substantial compliance with government-issued protocols for treatment, but also would be protected if they’re unable to do so because they’re overwhelmed with patients.

Laura Youmans of the Florida Justice Association, representing trial attorneys, argue that the shield has already prevented survivors of patients suffering from medical malpractice from bringing claims. She added that one of the justifications supporters raised for last year’s bill was the lack of personal protective equipment that caused health workers to cut corners early in the pandemic, but that that’s no longer a problem.

Among the organizations supporting the move were the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Health Care Association, the Florida Assisted Living Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“This has not lowered the standard of care,” David Mica Jr. of the Florida Hospital Association insisted.

“Our front-line workers are taxed on every single way that they can handle. What we hope is that this limited exemption that y’all provided last year, that we can extend that to protect against frivolous lawsuits,” he said.

To the contrary, Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO argued health care providers have had two years to mitigate the COVID hazard. “If they have not, then they should face the same obligations that any other employer has for not managing a new hazardous substance in the workplace.”

He stressed that the exemption was pitched as an emergency measure last year. “That emergency has passed,” Templin said.

in response to the struggle by medical providers to cope with equipment and bed shortages related to COVID?