By Jim Saunders and Tom Urban
TALLAHASSEE — With the state still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, the Florida House on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would extend COVID-19 legal protections for hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers.
The House voted 87-31 to pass the measure (SB 7014), which was approved last month by the Senate. It is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Lawmakers last year passed a measure to help shield health-care providers from COVID-19 lawsuits, but the protections are set to expire March 29. The bill, if signed by DeSantis, will extend the protections to June 1, 2023.
The measure addresses lawsuits involving issues such as transmission of COVID-19 and treatment of people with COVID-19.
Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who is a dermatologist, said the extension is needed because of the continuing pandemic.
“The issue is not settled,” Massullo said. “As a matter of fact, when it comes to COVID, the
issue is far from settled. We need to consider protection for those health-care entities.”
But opponents raised concerns that the legal protections could create a disincentive for health-care providers to focus on high-quality care. House Republicans unanimously voted for the bill and were joined by 10 Democrats.
“To just have a blanket extension on any kind of bad medical care that may be given, and just say, ‘Well, it’s the pandemic and you can kind of get away with anything you want to,’ that’s not a good approach,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said.
Under the law passed last year, health-care providers can still face COVID-19 lawsuits. But the legal protections, for example, require a higher standard of proof for plaintiffs. In such cases, plaintiffs have to prove “by the greater weight of the evidence that the health care provider was grossly negligent or engaged in intentional misconduct.”
Also, health-care providers are shielded from lawsuits if they can offer “affirmative” defenses, such as compliance with government-issued health standards.
Massullo said the law does not protect health-care providers who commit “gross negligence.”
“The practices that you and I might go to for our health care need to be staffed by individuals that believe and know that the state of Florida has their backs,” he said.
The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in December and early January as the highly-contagious omicron variant spread through Florida. But new cases have decreased during the past few weeks, with hospitalizations also falling. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted data Thursday that showed 6,741 Florida inpatients had COVID-19, down from 7,129 on Wednesday.
Jim Saunders and Tom Urban are reporters with News Service of Florida