Wolf signs executive order shielding some healthcare workers against malpractice claims during pandemic

    Capital-Star file

    (*This story was updated on 5/7/20 at 10:22 a.m. with comment from the state trial lawyer’s association. Updated again at 1:47 p.m., with comment from the Pennsylvania Medical Society)

    COVID-19 patients cannot file medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors, nurses and other licensed health care practitioners working in hospitals under an executive order Gov. Tom Wolf signed Wednesday.

    The action has been long sought by medical professionals, but Pennsylvania’s chief medical advocacy group said that, as written, Wolf’s order leaves out protections for independent doctors.

    The order will cover health care practitioners who are licensed, certified or registered by or with the state, but does not extend to “acts or omissions that constitute a crime, gross negligence, or fraud, malice, or other willful misconduct,” according to a release.

    In a statement, Wolf said the order would “protect the individuals serving on the front lines of the disaster response” who have had to “broaden their professional responsibilities and experiences like never before.”

    The order follows similar actions taken in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, according to the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which has lobbied for the change for the past weeks.

    But in a statement, Lawrence John, president of the society, said as written, the order does not protect medical professionals who work in private practice or at facilities that do not admit and keep patients overnight.

    “If it weren’t for these ‘frontline’ physicians, emergency rooms would be inundated and overwhelmed,” John said in a statement. “We don’t want to create a culture of defensive medicine, where physicians in out-patient settings refer patients with COVID-19 symptoms to the emergency room for fear of being sued.”

    Wolf should, John said, take further action to all medical practitioners. Also left out in the order are hospitals, healthcare systems, and other care facilities.

    In a statement, LeadingAge PA President Adam Marles, which represents more than 360 nursing homes in Pennsylvania, said that individual immunity was “not enough.” 

    “We remain shocked and dumbfounded on why this administration continues to ignore the needs of Pennsylvania’s nursing facilities and healthcare providers,” Marles said.

    Marles also called for additional state resources for nursing homes for protective equipment and other medical supplies.

    As of Wednesday, about two-thirds of the 3,106 Pennsylvanians who have died from COVID-19 were nursing home residents. As reported by Spotlight PA, elder care facilities have existed in a regulatory blindspot even as cases and deaths mount.

    *On the legal side, state trial lawyers greeted the order with guarded skepticism.

    “Immunity is never a good idea because it exposes all of us to careless conduct and disincentives responsible behavior,” Sud Patel, President of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, which represents the trial lawyers, said in a statement.

    The association did not specifically say where it stood on Wolf’s current order, but “going further … would rob current and future victims of any recourse.”

    The order also temporarily relaxes supervision requirements for some medical professionals, such as nurse anesthetists. It will remain in effect until Wolf ends the coronavirus disaster declaration.