Pennsylvania should offer health care providers temporary medical liability immunity for COVID-19 care
Lawrence John / May 6, 2020
Like many governors, Tom Wolf has thanked physicians for their service during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has called us heroes.
And yet, unlike many governors in the northeastern U.S., he has failed to protect physicians from the expected surge of medical malpractice lawsuits.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) demands to know why Mr. Wolf has remained largely silent.
Why have governors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts protected their physicians with temporary medical liability immunity (only for COVID-19 patients), while physicians in Pennsylvania remain vulnerable?
Why has Mr. Wolf not publicly given our physician community a reason for his inaction, despite repeated inquiries from PAMED, the Pennsylvania Health Care Association and others?
In the coming months, we expect personal injury attorneys in Pennsylvania to pursue families of COVID-19 patients, ready to sue physicians for bad outcomes.
COVID-19 is a new, highly communicable and sometimes deadly virus that we don’t know a lot about. Physicians, nurses and other health care providers are in the trenches without a safety net, learning as we see each new patient.
As of April 30, more than 2,600 Pennsylvania health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 while in the line of duty. Despite that risk, healthy workers continue to show up to work every day to care for patients who are suffering from a disease with no effective treatment and no accepted standard of care.
Residents in large cities around the world frequently salute health care workers for their dedication during COVID-19. In New York, residents open their windows every night to applaud and show their appreciation.
Mr. Wolf continues to thank physicians, nurses and other health care providers for putting their lives on the line. But his words of thanks ring hollow without real action.
PAMED sent four letters to Mr. Wolf asking for an executive order to provide health care workers with medical liability protection. The last one, on April 22, included 38 other health care associations. Mr. Wolf has not responded publicly to any of them.
Contrary to what some say, this is not part of a hidden agenda to gain more freedom from medical malpractice lawsuits.
It would only apply to COVID-19 patients during the time of Pennsylvania’s emergency declaration. It would essentially expand our state’s Good Samaritan law to include treating patients with COVID-19.
Good Samaritan laws provide legal protections for physicians and other health care professionals who help those injured in roadside accidents, hurricanes or other medical emergencies. These laws include exceptions for gross negligence and willful misconduct.
Physician burnout before COVID-19 was already at crisis levels. Physician suicides were twice the rate of the general population. A New York ER physician’s tragic suicide last month made national news, further highlighting the enormous pressures for physicians during COVID-19.
While medical liability immunity would not erase all of these pressures, it would provide some peace of mind as physicians make difficult decisions in less than ideal situations.
At the very least, physicians in Pennsylvania deserve to hear directly from Mr. Wolf as to why he is not providing them with the protection that their colleagues in other states already have in place.
Dr. Lawrence John is president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a family physician from Pittsburgh.