Federal law protects volunteers

LETTER — Posted Aug. 16, 2004

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Regarding "HHS prodded to implement liability coverage for free clinic volunteers" (Article, June 28): Your article did not mention an important federal law: The Volunteer Protection Act, signed into law June 18, 1997.

The act protects all free clinic health care volunteers, including physicians, from malpractice liability. (It excludes harmful acts caused by willful or criminal behavior and reckless misconduct, behavior often called "gross negligence," but includes all normal acts of malpractice.)

The VPA controls all state tort medical liability laws if they are less protective but does not limit the states from passing laws that are more protective. Therefore, even retired physicians who are uninsured but practice in states without laws to protect medical volunteers can work in a free clinic with a large degree of assurance that they cannot be sued.

In May, Oklahoma passed legislation based on the VPA: The Volunteer Medical Professional Services Immunity Act. The Oklahoma act extends the VPA's malpractice protection to physicians who see a patient referred from a free clinic to a private office, if there is no fee charged or billed to that patient. Now it is literally true that in Oklahoma, a good deed will go unpunished.

Curtis E. Harris, MD, JD, Ada, Okla.

Note: This item originally appeared at http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2004/08/16/edlt0816.htm.

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