A bill before the New Jersey Legislature would limit the malpractice liability of physicians in a private practice who donate time and services to charity clinics treating low-income and uninsured patients.
Federal law protects physicians from malpractice lawsuits for charity care they provide. New Jersey Senate Bill 239, the Volunteer Medical Professional Health Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Robert Singer (R-Lakewood) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Jersey City), would extend the same protection to “volunteer medical professionals,” even when they are treating patients on a non-volunteer basis.
A licensed health care or dentistry professional volunteering at least 48 hours per calendar quarter, just under four hours per week on average, would qualify for the limitation of liability under the bill, which the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee has held since its introduction in January 2016.
Carrot vs. Stick
Offering physicians additional protection against malpractice lawsuits could entice doctors to treat more patients for free, according to the bill.
“Expanding physicians’ civil immunity from tort claims in exchange for their ongoing commitments to charitable practice in free clinics can improve low-income patients’ access to a range of medical options while reducing Medicaid utilization and expenditures,” the bill states.
Dr. Alieta Eck, cofounder of the private charity clinic Zarephath Health Center in Somerset, New Jersey and an early supporter of SB 239, says the bill would encourage specialist physicians to close a shortage of volunteers.
“We need more volunteer physicians, mainly psychiatrists, surgeons, and other specialists,” Eck said. “It occurred to us that we would get many more physicians to volunteer if we did one simple thing: provide medical malpractice protection for the private practices of physicians who donate four hours per week in or through a nongovernment free clinic like ours.”
The bill would give the underserved lower Medicaid expenditures and wider access to care, Eck says.
“This would be especially helpful if Medicaid funds are block-granted back to the states and states were given flexibility in the way they care for the poor, especially the ambulatory poor,” Eck said.
One-Stop Charity Shop
Eck and her husband, Dr. John Eck, cofounded Zarephath Health Center in 2003. Staffed mostly by volunteer doctors and nurses, Zarephath provides free physical, emotional, and spiritual care to the poor and uninsured, according to the clinic’s mission statement.
Eck says Zarephath has relied on private donations alone.
“The Zarephath Health Center has worked well for 14 years, providing charity care at the cost of $15 per patient visit, none from the government,” Eck said. “It is amazing how cost-effective we can be when all the nurses and doctors volunteer.
“We send out an end-of-year letter asking for donations, and many donate throughout the year,” Eck said. “Our total budget is $65,000,” Eck said.
The health center is located on the campus of Zarephath Christian Church, which provides most of its funding.
‘Needs to Be Reproduced’
The clinic helps provide holistic care to complement the work of nearby charities, Eck says.
“We have a food bank and clothing closet in the same area, so we can really bless people in need,” Eck said.
Lawmakers should remove government barriers deterring physicians willing to give charity a chance, Eck says.
“Donated services and medicines make it possible, and it is a model that needs to be reproduced,” Eck said.
Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Volunteer Medical Professional Health Care Act, New Jersey Legislature, January 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/volunteer-medical-professional-health-care-act
Dr. Alieta Eck, “Caring for the Poor Without Medicaid Bureaucracy,” The Heartland Institute, May 31, 2016: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/caring-for-the-poor-without-medicaid-bureaucracy
Michael T. Hamilton, “Dr. Alieta Eck: Give Charity Care, Health Care Sharing a Chance,” Health Care News Podcast, The Heartland Institute, May 4, 2017: https://heartland.org/multimedia/podcasts/dr-alieta-eck-give-charity-care-health-care-sharing-a-chance
Hilary Masell Oswald, “Clinic Cares for the Uninsured—Without Government Strings,” Health Care News, The Heartland Institute, January 1, 2008: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/clinic-cares-for-the-uninsured–without-government-strings
Sen. Robert Singer (R-Lakewood): http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/bio.asp?Leg=93
Sen. Brian Stack (D-Jersey City): http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/bio.asp?Leg=306
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