- - Sunday, April 26, 2020

America’s first responders are truly the heroes of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Unlike millions like myself who have jobs that afford us the ability to work from home, health care professionals are essential workers on the front lines fighting the battles in our country’s overcrowded hospitals and medical facilities. While most Americans can socially distance from others who may have the sickness, first responders don’t have that luxury. They must physically contact COVID-19 patients on a daily basis to do their duties, leaving them especially susceptible to contracting the virus.

First responders’ bravery and commitment to caring for our sick country deserves a round of applause, as New Yorkers have been doing for them daily at 7 p.m. for weeks now. Unfortunately, not everyone is joining in the celebration. In the shadows, trial lawyers have already begun scheming about how to get rich off of their heroism through spurious medical malpractice lawsuits. Policymakers must take action to protect America’s front-line coronavirus fighters and reform the tort system in the long-term.

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis seems like a perfect storm for malpractice lawsuits, with countless patients having their procedures cancelled and being crowded out of hospitals. On March 18, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued recommendations for health care providers to delay all elective and non-essential surgeries. Moreover, 49 states and D.C. have taken actions easing licensing and telehealth requirements to practice medicine in their jurisdictions. To address the state’s overcrowded hospitals, New York is allowing medical professionals licensed in other states to treat coronavirus patients during the pandemic.

Fortunately, leaders on both sides of the aisle are starting to raise the alarm. On Wednesday, a coalition of 23 organizations sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laying out the potential dangers. 

If trial lawyers’ predatory, self-serving agenda succeeds, it will hobble our nation’s economic recovery. Costs will significantly rise on the American people in the form of higher health care bills, reduced competition and access to treatment and care, and increased prices on the goods and services that they need to weather this crisis. Vital industries that support our economy could suffer catastrophic bankruptcies. Worst of all, much of the innovation and capital needed to find cures, both to this disease and the economic devastation posed by it, will face significant delays as well, exacerbating the feelings of hopelessness and despair felt throughout the nation.

Some states like Illinois, New Jersey and New York have already taken action, granting immunity to health care workers acting in good faith to treat COVID-19 patients. More states will doubtlessly enact more measures in the coming weeks. On the federal level, many proposals have been floating on Capitol Hill lately, too. Sen. Ben Sasse, for example, introduced a bill that would shield medical professionals working outside their specialties to treat coronavirus patients.

However, no temporary immunity can fully protect from the creative ways trial lawyers find to push lawsuits forward. When all is said and done, comprehensive tort reform is needed. Solutions like capping the payments from exorbitant and often bogus lawsuits and defining who can be a defendant in class-action cases would do much good.

When America’s first responders finally hang up their masks after the virus recedes, they should not return home to be hit with frivolous lawsuits from patients and trial lawyers looking for a payday. Lawmakers should step up to enact proactive measures that protect our heroes from potential malpractice suits spurring from their acting in good faith to treat COVID-19 patients. But even this is not enough. As things return to normal, policymakers should look for new ways to overhaul America’s tort system for the sake of sanity.

• Casey Given is the executive director of Young Voices.

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