Oklahoma's ' Volunteer Immunity Act'

Wednesday, January 26th 2005, 5:36 am
By: News On 6

Some Oklahoma clinics providing free health care could be in jeopardy, if volunteer doctors continue to resign.

Facing the high cost of malpractice insurance and fearing lawsuits, many retired doctors say they simply can't afford to help for free. But malpractice attorneys say these doctors have nothing to fear. A new law shields them from being dragged into court.
News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin has the story.

Dr Ed Jenkins retired volunteer physician: "I don't think I should have to pay $5,000 a year to give free care." Earlier this month we brought you the story of Dr. Ed Jenkins, who faced with a massive increase in the cost of his malpractice insurance, decided to stop volunteering at area clinics. It's becoming a near epidemic at one Tulsa clinic, where at least 5 retired volunteer physicians have departed in recent months.

Neighbor for Neighbor Clinic director Ann Smith: "They want to come in and volunteer but they're not going to risk their house, their retirement and everything else for incomplete insurance." But malpractice attorney Ted Sherwood says they don't have to.

Oklahoma lawmakers recently passed the Volunteer Immunity Act, which states "Any volunteer medical professional shall be immune from liability in a civil action on the basis of any act or omission, resulting in damage or injury."

That's as long as the doctor or other caregiver was not being compensated, was licensed for that type of care, it was made clear to the patient that the care was free and without liability and that there was no gross negligence on the part of the doctor.

Attorney Ted Sherwood: "It is not going to excuse every single kind of medical conduct if a doctor were to come in intoxicated and committed a medical mistake that might take him out of the purview of the protection of this statute. But if a doctor is exercising his best medical judgment, makes a mistake while he's working for a free clinic he is immune from liability under this act."

Sherwood says now that the act has passed non-practicing, volunteer doctors are no longer required to carry malpractice insurance. He says doctors simply aren't being fully informed about the law. Clinic directors say they are aware of the Volunteer Immunity Act and hope it would provide the protection it promises, but they say their doctors are still leery. No one wants to be the first test case.

Sherwood: “When a statute is passed that says you are immune from suit, unless you commit some kind of terrible, really outrageous conduct, that's what it means, you're immune from suit, you're protected from liability."

The act went into effect November 1st. Other states have passed similar legislation.