Volunteer Medical Professionals Could Become Immune to Liability

Proposed legislation creates an exception for volunteers working with charitable organizations

March 31, 2011 – Legislation sponsored by Rep. Gene Whisnant (R-Redmond) would create immunity from civil liability, including malpractice lawsuits, for doctors and dentists who volunteer with charitable organizations that serve homeless veterans.
Although House Bill 3232 is intended to encourage medical professionals to volunteer without the fear of being sued, it wouldn’t give them immunity from gross negligence suits.
“It’s going to increase the services we’re able to provide because we’ll have more volunteers,” Whisnant said. “They’ve got the time, but they don’t want to face the civil suits. We have too many homeless people who need healthcare and health services. They can provide the services. It’s a win-win.”
Currently physicians, dentists and other medical professionals must purchase additional liability insurance if they provide care outside their normal place of business. But they can sign a liability waiver, along with the patient, if they provide services without charging a fee.  
“It’s a more cumbersome process,” testified Gwen Dayton, the Oregon Medical Association’s legal counsel.
Sarah Holtzclaw, policy and communications director for Partnership to End Poverty, estimates that 75 percent of the professionals that her social service organization approach, refuse to participate, citing liability concerns.
“Many who would like to help cannot due the unavailability or extraordinarily high cost of off-premise liability coverage,” Holtzclaw told the House Health Care Committee.
“It’s a huge issue for them,” said Kat Mastrangelo, executive director of Bend’s Volunteers in Medicine.
Chuck Hemingway, executive director of Central Oregon Veterans’ Coalition, said a homeless veteran died in January 2010 from an illness that could have been prevented had he received  care.
The death provoked Hemingway and his organization to create an outreach medical van that will go to homeless camps at least once a week and provide medical and dental services. There will be at least two providers, and the van will be stocked with basic medical and dental supplies. Hemingway says the van will go on its first outing in early April.
“This is a very preventive mechanism,” Hemingway said. But, as the program developed, the main concern was whether Central Oregon Veterans’ Coalition would cover liability insurance for the volunteers.  
“The rates we were quoted would have amounted to $96,000 a year,” Hemingway said. “That’s three-quarters of our annual budget. We can’t afford it.”
Also, no insurance company was willing to provide liability coverage for an annual service fair sponsored by the Partnership to End Poverty, which serves up to 2,600 homeless people, said  Holtzclaw said, and frequently people have to be referred to the emergency room.  
The House Health Care Committee took no action to move the bill out of committee. Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland) thinks the bill isn’t necessary, saying, “They already have immunity if they under the particular law,” he said, referencing an existing liability law which allows a patient to sign a waiver allowing a physician to provide pro bono services and be immune from liability. 
The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association is the only group that publicly opposes this measure, but no one testified at the committee hearing.  
There are approximately 1,400 homeless veterans living in Oregon, according to the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department. Approximately 70 live in Deschutes County.
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