Guest column: Legislature sets terrible precedent on health care decision

By Florida Rep. Paige Kreegel

R-Punta Gorda

Sovereign immunity is the doctrine by which the state is protected from nuisance lawsuits and financial liabilities. Lawsuits can be prosecuted against sovernment entities, but payouts are limited to $200,000. Greater amounts must be approved by the Legislature, under a process known as a "claims bill."

The last week of the Florida legislative session saw the usual menagerie of suspect bills get passed, many with little scrutiny or debate. Among these was a portfolio of claims bills, including the granddaddy of all, the $15 million against Lee Memorial Hospital for Aaron Edwards.

The merits of the case have been argued elsewhere, but this bill and a dozen others had languished for years until picked up by a firm of attorney-lobbyists who were financially well-connected to both Senate and House leadership via campaign (and other) contributions. Their tactics included running expensive TV ads on local stations, targeting local legislators, causing at least one to change his vote.

The fallout from these multi-million dollar penalties is just now settling in. Public, charity, and safety-net hospitals which had operated for years under an assumption of limited liability, could now be subject to crippling judgments, and burgeoning lawsuits. Why have sovereign immunity if we are willing to discard it in such cavalier manner?

Lee Memorial, which receives no tax support, will be forced to curtail or scale back services to patients — many of whom are uninsured and have no other options. Worse yet, they will, of necessity, need to purchase liability insurance going forward. For a hospital system the size of Lee Memorial, that will cost many millions of dollars each and every year, further reducing funds available for patient services.

And that is only the beginning.

Free clinics for the poor have sprung up around the state in recent years. These clinics consist of free or discounted office space, donated pharmaceutical samples and equipment, and physicians and nurses who spend half or full days each week giving free to care to these patients.

The Neighborhood Clinic in Naples is one of these.

Founded and managed by Nancy Lascheid, a modern-day Florence Nightingale, it stands as a monument of her determination to provide excellence in medical care to the poor and uninsured. A beautiful, modern facility, it boasts an incredible staff of over 200 doctors representing most specialties — a veritable Mayo Clinic for the poor and uninsured. Modest fees on a sliding scale pay for the utilities and keep the lights turned on.

Yet, where hope once held sway, storm clouds now loom.

These clinics carry no liability insurance, their sole protection being their inclusion under sovereign immunity. Many of the physicians are retired and carry no malpractice insurance. Others are hospital employees whose liability coverage exists only while practicing in the hospital. Now, with that immunity lying in tattered shreds, many of these charitable physicians are questioning whether the risk is worth it. An outlandish judgment, like the one against Lee Memorial, would wipe out their retirement, putting many of them out onto the streets.

Some doctors have already reconsidered donating their time and skills. Many more may follow suit. Some ultimately may close their doors.

Their erstwhile patients would then get their medical care at the most expensive, impersonal, and least efficient environment: the local hospital emergency room.

The effects of that sad day in the Legislature will be felt around our state for years. Our expectation of good from government is built mostly on our hopes, and must be tempered by the too often disappointing results. Meanwhile, the ability of governments to cause harm is nearly unlimited. Future legislatures would do well to remember that.

Kreegel is an emergency and family medicine doctor; he is running as a Republican for the U.S. House seat now held by Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features