Missouri lawmakers voted on Wednesday of last week to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of SB 129, the Volunteer Health Services Act, which relaxes medical malpractice liability for volunteers.
“This is going to increase access to health care for thousands of Missourians at no cost to the taxpayer,”Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, who sponsored the bill, told Watchdog.
The measure waives civil penalties against volunteers unless there is a “gross deviation from the ordinary standard of care or willful misconduct.” The change means health professionals can donate their services without fear of lawsuits.
The cost of liability insurance kept many retired physicians and other health workers from volunteering in their communities, Sater told Watchdog last month.
“We just want them to work within the scope of their practice and if they do that and follow the standard of care, which we have in the bill, then they won’t have to fear being sued for some frivolous stuff,” said Sater, a pharmacist by training.
The new law also allows health professionals licensed in other states to practice in Missouri as long as they are providing free care.
Charitable groups like the Tennessee-based Remote Area Medical rely on out-of-state physicians and nurses to staff their events. The organization holds weekend-long events across the country to provide free dental, eye and general medical care to thousands of underserved patients. People often drive for hours and camp out in their cars overnight to make sure they will get a spot in line.
Without out-of-state volunteers, RAM can’t see everybody who shows up.
“It’s a mathematical problem,” RAM founder Stan Brock said.
About 60 percent of the doctors and nurses who are volunteering at an event in Clinton, Tenn., next week are licensed outside of Tennessee, Brock said.
“To have this restriction that a doctor duly qualified in New Jersey is not allowed to cross state lines to provide free care in Missouri.
In 2011, RAM sent its mobile eyeglass clinic to Joplin to assist in the tornado recovery effort, but couldn’t do any work because the group’s optometrist and opticians weren’t licensed in Missouri.
In his July veto message, Nixon wrote that Missouri already has a system of free clinics and that any gaps in coverage “should be addressed within the system.”
Missouri becomes at least the eighth state to ease restrictions on volunteer health workers. In other states, similar legislation “has been extremely successful and thousands of patients have been served that otherwise would not have got the care that they need,” Brock said.
After passing the Missouri Senate 25-9, the override initially fell one vote short in the House. But around midnight the measure squeaked through on reconsideration, obtaining the necessary 109 votes.