Senate Uses Lawsuit Protection Bill to Promote Taxpayer-Funded Health Coverage

Published December 1, 2008

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would shield from out-of-pocket liability doctors who donate their services to indigent patients.

The legislation, the Volunteer Healthcare Program Act of 2008 (S 3354), introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), would use tax dollars to fund a grant of up to $600,000 for each state to provide medical and dental care through volunteer health care providers to “medically under-served and uninsured families.”

States could apply to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, then distribute the money to doctors doing charitable work. At press time the bill was in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

The legislation is appealing to many physicians because of its immunity provisions, according to Enzi’s spokesman, Craig Orfield. Doctors’ insurance often does not extend to their volunteer work, and the risk of medical malpractice suits “is an impediment to philanthropic health care providers’ ability to sign doctors up to be part of their volunteer service corps,” Orfield said.

“The intent of this legislation is to make charitable donations of physician services more attractive, to make more doctors feel comfortable in doing that, and ultimately, to provide a greater pool of volunteer health care,” Orfield added.

‘Extra Regulation’

Not all nonprofit health care providers support the legislation. Some worry the bill’s vague wording would make it tough to administer and easy to abuse.

Randy Feith, executive director of Aurora Mental Health Center in Colorado, which would be affected by the legislation, said he was concerned about the extra regulation the bill might necessitate.

“They might end up spending as much or more on the oversight as they would on the project,” Feith said. “It’s certainly extra regulation.”

Single-Payer Inducement

Experts say while the immunity provision makes S 3354 appealing, the taxpayer-funded grants to encourage doctors to volunteer care to individuals and families making more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level are troubling.

“This bill attempts to induce states to set up a single-payer, state-run health care program for uninsured and under-served families, with doctors, nurses, dentists, and even dental hygienists donating their time,” said Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.

“It would establish still another state bureaucracy, drain scarce state and federal funds, and possibly duplicate other state programs such as SCHIP,” Martin said.

Martin added, “The program is way too broad. Having your teeth cleaned on the government dole is just a waste. And nothing in the bill limits its application to philanthropic health care providers.”

States Can Handle It

Martin says even the immunity portion of the bill is largely unnecessary. “Many states already provide immunity from malpractice lawsuits to physicians who provide care to those injured in accidents and other persons who need medical help,” she noted.

“If the states want to extend this to philanthropic free medical clinics, that should be up to them,” Martin concluded.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

S 3354, Volunteer Healthcare Program Act of 2008: