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Medical malpractice bill exempting 'free' doctors fails

A bill that seeks to exempt doctors who offer free medical care from malpractice lawsuits has failed to pass in the final legislative session in another state. In an election year in which medical malpractice reform is a hot topic in the Washington D.C. area and around the country, this particular bill, as do many medical malpractice reform efforts, has fierce support and opposition.

Opponents argue that this bill is unfair to low-income consumers because it prevents those who seek free medical care from pursuing a medical malpractice claim against a doctor. The bill leaves only those who can afford to pay for health care with the right to sue for such medical malpractice as hospital negligence, surgical mistakes and drug errors. Doctors who volunteer their time were strong supporters of the bill.

The bill received much testimony in the state legislature, including attorneys from the New Jersey Association for Justice, which is a trial lawyers group, who argued the bill would create two classes in society, one which can pursue justice through the courts and one which cannot. Every citizen should have access to quality health care as well as justice, it said. The group also argued that so called "free" health care would no longer be free in that the costs for a patient is giving up his or her legal rights.

The legislation, which would have provided immunity to doctors who provide free medical treatments from medical malpractice lawsuits, did not provide immunity for "gross negligence or willful misconduct." Supporters said the bill would prevent retired doctors who volunteer their time from having to purchase malpractice insurance. The legislation providing civil immunity would also make it easier to recruit doctors, mainly specialists to work at free clinics to expand services offered, supporters argued.

The Federal Tort Claims Act covers doctors at community health centers, federally qualified health centers and free clinics. The FTCA provides for individuals to sue the federal government for medical malpractice, personal injury, wrongful death and property damage caused by the negligence of federal employees or independent contractors, under certain conditions, who are performing work within the scope of his or her employment duties.

Victims can sue for monetary damages for a specified amount governed by federal law however, state law, where the negligence or omission occurred may dictate the government's liability in such matters as medical malpractice. State laws vary greatly in terms of medical malpractice guidelines and caps on monetary damages awarded.

Source: NJ Spotlight, "Malpractice Exemption Pits Lawyers Against Volunteer Doctors," Beth Fitzgerald, June 25, 2012

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