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COVID-19 lawsuit bill would help shield Florida health providers

'The system we have now -- works,' Sen. Minority Leader Gary Farmer says
Posted at 6:33 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 18:33:05-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A measure making it harder to file a lawsuit against hospitals and nursing homes for COVID-19 negligence has cleared another committee hurdle in the Florida legislature.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus

It's a major agenda item for the GOP majority this session, with versions moving in both the House and the Senate. Sponsors have said they want to protect health providers who were there for residents when the pandemic began.

When the pandemic began, personal protective equipment and tests were almost impossible to get. For months, health providers like nursing homes did what they could to endure.

"The best tool they had was a thermometer, which I think we would all agree is a crude tool as a COVID test," said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes
State Sen. Jeff Brandes wants to protect health providers from COVID-19 lawsuits if they acted in good faith.

Brandes is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 74), which he said aims to protect those who acted in good faith. Plaintiffs would have to provide overwhelming evidence to prove negligence. Providers would be shielded if they couldn't get what was needed to comply with COVID-19 standards.

"For some of these facilities, there was no amount of money they could have spent to get PPE," Brandes said. "There was no amount of money they could have spent to get COVID tests because they simply didn't exist."

Wednesday's party-line vote advanced the bill to its final committee before reaching the House floor.

Florida's hospital and health care associations cheered the support.

"My staff are physically and mentally weary," said Kim Biegasiewicz the Vice President of Clinical Services at Avante Group and a Florida Health Care Association member. "The last thing we need is to have our decisions second-guessed by attorneys and others that can’t imagine the pressure we’ve had to endure."

Kim Biegasiewicz, Florida Health Care Association member
Kim Biegasiewicz with the Florida Health Care Association is among those supporting Senate Bill 74.

Democrats, however, are concerned the bill is written too broadly and will protect bad operators, especially among long-term care facilities where COVID has killed more than 10,000 residents.

"They should be protected. They're captive," said Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer. "They have no control over their environment. The system we have now -- works."

Next, the legislation heads to the Rules Committee. Once there, Brandes plans to roll it into his other measure (SB 72). It would shield businesses from liability with similar protections.

The Republican said these policies would be less challenging to advance as one omnibus piece of legislation.

"I think it's easier to defend one fortress than two," Brandes said. "At the end of the day, these bills work well together."

New Florida TaxWatch and Mason-Dixon polling showed most support the protections for health providers. Survey results reported about 76 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans were in favor.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering