Volunteer doctors in Oklahoma protected from lawsuits

Monday, August 9th 2004, 10:20 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Free health clinics across the state have a new recruiting tool this year: tort reform designed to protect volunteer doctors from malpractice lawsuits.

The changes, set to take effect Nov. 1, will keep patients from suing volunteer doctors unless the doctors showed gross negligence.

Whereas doctors shied away from volunteering in the past because they feared malpractice lawsuits, clinics now expect more enthusiasm.

``My sense has been there were a number of physicians who wanted to volunteer and wanted to help,'' said Mindy Tiner, executive director of Neighbors Along the Line, which operates a free clinic in Tulsa.

``They recognized the need a lot of people were in, but they just couldn't do it because the risk to them was too great.''

If the doctors were sued, their insurance rates could have gone up beyond what they could have afforded and they could have been dropped from group insurance plans.

Now, several clinics plan to recruit more volunteers by telling them about the tort reform.

``I think it will be at the forefront of our recruitment letter,'' said Jana Timberlake, executive director of the Oklahoma County Medical Society.

The medical society, which sponsors a free clinic with Deaconess Hospital, lost one volunteer doctor who worried about being sued, Timberlake said.

Another physician, Dr. Bill McDoniel, stopped volunteering at the Health Access Clinic in Chickasha in June. The retired family-practice doctor let his malpractice insurance lapse in July, and he doesn't expect to return to the clinic.

``It's now costing more than I'm willing to do for free,'' he said.

McDoniel lives off savings, his 401(k) and Social Security and has little wiggle room for his nearly $1,000 annual insurance rate.

In his private practice, he was sued by nonpaying patients, and he thinks it could happen at the free clinic.

``Society's becoming very litigious,'' he said. ``The American hope is to win a big personal injury suit. It's a way to get money for nothing. It's like the lottery.''

But Curtis Harris, a law professor, endocrinologist and a founder of a free clinic in Ada, thinks Oklahoma's tort reform will assuage fears of litigation.

The new Oklahoma law recognizes the federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 and expands that act's definition of a free clinic, Harris said.

Oklahoma's law will require doctors and patients to sign a statement in which they agree the doctor won't be compensated for treatment and the patient will have a limited ability to sue for damages, Harris wrote in an article that will appear this month in the Oklahoma State Medical Association Journal.

``In addition to practicing physicians, retired physicians and other professionals who no longer maintain malpractice liability insurance can reasonably expect to work as medical volunteers without the fear of being sued,'' he wrote.

Harris doesn't think lawsuits are significant threats to free clinics anyway.

``The people are very grateful,'' he said. ``Folks that come to free clinics don't sue.''

Dr. David Minyard, director of Ministries of Jesus in Edmond, doesn't think suing free clinics would be worthwhile because the clinics don't have much money.

Plus, Minyard doesn't think many people who use free clinics have the resources to sue.

That's why they need the clinics in the first place.

``What we've noticed is that there's a gap between those who qualify for Medicare or Medicaid and those who have private insurance,'' said Kevin Tully, with the Good Shepherd Free Health Clinic of Muskogee.

Free health care has been a ``lifesaver'' for Harlene Sanders, who doesn't have medical insurance. Sanders has gone to Good Shepherd Ministries, run by First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, for about 12 years.

``I have high blood pressure, which is life-threatening if you don't have medicine,'' she said.

But this week, she made an appointment because of bronchitis.

In a small room shielded by a long white curtain, Sanders sat in a dull brown folding chair, leaned to her left and coughed hard as Dr. Scott Newton touched her back with a stethoscope.

``Just a couple more times,'' he promised.

Newton, who has volunteered at the clinic for most of his career, shone a small flashlight into Sanders' throat and peeked into her ears.

``I took antibiotics, and it ain't gone yet,'' Sanders said.

When Newton disappeared into the clinic's pharmacy to load a brown paper lunch sack with medication samples, Sanders expressed disbelief that anyone would sue such a doctor.

``When they're trying to help you with health care, why would you try to hurt them?''