OPINION: Legislation to prevent COVID-19 victims from suing nursing homes needs to go

To ensure accountability, legislation to prevent citizens from suing businesses, health care companies and hospitals for negligence should not be enacted. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Legislation to prevent those affected by COVID-19 from suing negligent businesses like nursing homes and health care providers is being pushed through the Florida Congress to ensure victims and their families never get justice for the suffering they have endured. 

The bill (PCB HHS 21-01) was introduced Feb. 10 to the Florida House of Representatives by the House’s Health and Human Services Committee (HHHSC) and is now being fast-tracked to be voted on by March 2

The community that will be most affected by this bill, if passed, are the estimated 71,000 seniors currently living in Florida nursing homes, since those above the age of 65 are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. This legislation will do nothing but harm vulnerable populations and needs to be voted down next month. 

Citizens affected by the virus will be prohibited from producing “COVID-19-related lawsuits” against those they feel are responsible for them contracting the virus, including hospitals, nursing homes and individual physicians. Plaintiffs would have to prove the businesses were “grossly negligent” and would only have one year to do so as opposed to the usual two years plaintiffs receive to file medical malpractice claims. 

Almost a year after the start of the pandemic, nursing homes are still failing to take correct precautions and provide their residents with the care that they need and rising cases are reflecting this issue. 

As of January 2021, 12% of Florida nursing homes still had an insufficient amount of equipment, and 19% had a shortage of workers, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). During the holiday season, COVID-19 cases in Florida nursing homes almost doubled, according to a report by the AARP. 

As of Feb. 17, 594 complaints have been filed to the state by Florida residents, according to Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, a national law firm that created a nationwide COVID-19 complaint tracker. Despite these complaints, however, only three lawsuits against health care providers for malpractice during the pandemic are currently open in Florida, according to the law firm, so there doesn’t appear to be a need for a bill to relieve health care companies of their liability. 

At Freedom Square retirement community in Seminole, two families attempted to sue the health care service in charge of the facility after their loved ones died in their care. They filed lawsuits in June, accusing the organization of providing inadequate infection prevention during an outbreak in April. 

At the time of the Freedom Square outbreak, 83% of COVID-19 deaths in Florida were citizens above the age of 65, according to the Florida Department of Health, yet the directors , according to the lawsuit, disregarded the severity of the pandemic by failing to provide the facility with PPE and direction to handle a COVID-19 outbreak. 

The lawsuit also accused Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation and Nursing Services, the company that runs Freedom Square, of valuing finances over its residents. The lawsuit states that employees at Freedom Square begged management for the materials necessary to stay safe but were not provided with an adequate amount of masks, gloves and COVID-19 tests. 

If the legislation is passed and health care providers are released from their liability for COVID-19-related neglect, families of those affected by the outbreak at Freedom Square would not be able to receive retribution for the misconduct of the providers nor would the providers have an incentive to properly take care of residents.

A movement against the fast-tracking of this bill is already underway, spearheaded by nonprofit public policy organization Florida Consumer Action Network. The organization is currently pushing citizens to write letters, call their legislators and lobbying representatives to vote against the bill. 

Despite worries that legislators are disregarding their constituents’ needs, Gov. Ron DeSantis believes providing this legislation could help citizens who own nursing homes as well as other business owners feel comfortable relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions in order to put people back to work and re-establish Florida’s economy.

If they’re scared of getting sued, they’re going to err on the side of restricting the residents more than is necessary,” said DeSantis during a Feb. 15 press conference about the legislation. 

DeSantis’ argument shows he values an attempt at a return to normalcy over holding Florida’s businesses accountable and considering the safety of his residents. 

This far into the pandemic, health care providers should not be subjecting their residents to insufficient care. Providers should be liable for their transgressions to ensure they take correct precautions or at least responsibility for their negligence. Congress should stop this legislation from being passed to allow those who were poorly treated by caretakers and workers unable to self-isolate during the pandemic to obtain justice.