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The first stop for many underprivileged people when they have a medical issue is one of the 1,200 community health centers currently serving 9,000 communities across the nation. For those unfamiliar with these facilities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration defines them as “community-based and patient-directed organizations that serve populations with limited access to health care.”
Typically, community health centers are staffed by a relatively small but dedicated cadre of general practitioners and nurses operating on what amounts to a shoestring budget. To illustrate, the community health center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, has only 186 employees yet provides services to roughly 23,000 patients.
Given these somewhat unbelievable circumstances, one would assume that local physicians in private practice have proven unwilling to step forward and volunteer their time at these undermanned community health centers. As it turns out, however, this isn’t the case at all, as the current state of federal law may actually be what is preventing this from occurring.
Under the Federal Court Claims Act, those physicians who are employed full time in community health centers are provided medical malpractice insurance coverage by the federal government. However, this same level of protection is not provided to volunteer physicians, meaning many otherwise-willing parties are unwilling to provide their services gratis due to their fear of being held accountable for a medical mistake.
In recent developments, Pennsylvania lawmaker Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair) is seeking to change this through the introduction of bipartisan legislation called the Family Health Accessibility Act. This bill would essentially extend malpractice coverage to medical professionals looking to volunteer their time at community health centers.
“This is an example of real bipartisan reform that helps people get the health care they need when they need it, close to home, and at an affordable cost,” said Murphy. “Isn’t that what we all want with health care?”
It remains to be seen whether the bill, which the Congressional Budget Office found would cost $30 million over a five-year period, will gain the necessary traction on Capitol Hill. Given the fact that it would certainly help improve the quality of service at community health centers while preserving a patient’s right to hold a professional accountable for medical negligence, it could safely be said that it seems like a feasible proposition.
Stay tuned for updates …
If you or a loved one have been victimized by what you believe was medical malpractice, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about your rights and options for seeking justice.
Source: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Proposal would protect volunteer doctors,” Tracie Mauriello, Dec. 16, 2013
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