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Bill would insure doctors providing care in free clinics

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Active doctors have malpractice insurance but not much time to volunteer. Retired doctors have the time but not the insurance.

But a bill in the Legislature would help doctors who volunteer for free clinics get malpractice insurance, encouraging retired physicians to donate their time.

“If it comes to volunteering or losing the house (because of a lawsuit), they might choose to keep the house,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who hopes the bill he introduced Thursday will help.

Orr helped found the Community Free Clinic of Decatur/Morgan County, which he describes as a “real success story.” He still serves on its board.

Orr’s bill would provide retired physicians with state liability coverage through the Alabama Department of Public Health and the state’s risk-management pool. If a patient sued a doctor who treated him at a free health clinic, the state liability insurance would provide the doctor’s defense, Orr said.

At $348 per physician, liability coverage for the 25 to 40 retired doctors in the state who volunteer at free clinics would cost the state between $7,000 and $14,000 per year, Orr said.

Untested law

Orr said Alabama has a Good Samaritan law intended to protect volunteers in such situations, but there hasn’t been a court case involving a doctor to test it.

State Health Officer Dr. Don Williamson and Dickie Whittaker, director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, gave input for the bill, which Orr hopes will make health care more accessible.

The bill calls for the Department of Public Health to keep a list of doctors who are eligible for the coverage.

For people who have too much income for Medicaid but not enough money to buy health insurance, which often includes the working poor, free clinics provide regular medical care for little or no cost. Volunteer physicians are key to providing that care.

When uninsured sick people go to the emergency room, often with symptoms made worse because they put off seeing the doctor, then the problem is worse and the cost is often hundreds or thousands of dollars more than in a doctor’s office.

Often, hospitals and taxpayers pay for people who cannot pay, making the prospect of state-provided liability coverage appealing to state health officials. With more volunteer doctors, free clinics could see more patients, provide ongoing health tracking, and help reduce the number of people using expensive emergency room care in place of a family doctor.

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