SOURCE: Bloomburg Law

The embattled Senate stimulus package, if approved, would remove a troubling legal barrier by providing limited liability protection for doctors and other caregivers who volunteer across state lines during the coronavirus emergency.

The mammoth legislation (H.R. 748), tied up in negotiations with Senate Democrats and Republicans, includes a provision that would give volunteer health professionals the civil immunity they receive in their home states when providing care to Covid-19 patients in another state.

Supporters say the “Good Samaritan” provision could spur more doctors, anesthesiologists, and other health professionals to assist overwhelmed providers in hard-hit states like California, New York, and Washington, where access to care is already a major concern.

Improving liability protections during the pandemic is particularly important for physicians who use telehealth services to treat out-of-state patients and for those who live near state borders and may be needed for rapid response to a surge in patient volume across state lines, Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said.

Across State Lines

Federal and state laws offer some liability protection for health-care volunteers if they’re licensed in the state where they’re providing services. But those protections break down when volunteering across state lines, said William A. Ramsey, a medical malpractice attorney at Barrett McNagny LLP in Fort Wayne, Ind.

For example, if a doctor volunteer in a neighboring state is sued for malpractice there, the doctor’s home-state laws “that usually dictate how much that physician could be liable for on a malpractice claim would not apply,” Ramsey said. “And that could create some personal exposure for the physician.”

The Senate stimulus package would eliminate that possibility by extending federal Good Samaritan civil liability protections to interstate volunteers who treat coronavirus patients during the pandemic, Mike Stinson, chair of the Health Coalition on Liability and Access, said.

The liability exemption is “narrowly tailored,” with protections only applying to providers doing uncompensated volunteer work in response to a disaster declaration or public health emergency, Stinson said. The protections wouldn’t apply in cases of gross negligence, willful or wanton misconduct, or if the provider was practicing while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Stinson said.

The stimulus package provision is modeled after S. 1350, the Good Samaritan Health Professionals Act, introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) in 2019. Companion legislation in the House (H.R. 6283) was introduced last week by Reps. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.).

Groups such as the American College of Surgeons, the Medical Professional Liability Association, and the AMA have all advocated for the stimulus package to include Good Samaritan language.