TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida lawmakers appear to be speeding toward extending COVID-19 legal protections for hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers as the pandemic enters its third year.

The House Health & Human Services Committee on Friday approved a bill (PCB HHS 22-01) that would extend the legal protections until June 1, 2023. That came a day after the Senate Rules Committee approved the Senate version of the bill (SB 7014), setting up the issue to go to the full Senate next week.

The protections were approved during last year’s legislative session but are set to expire March 29 unless they are extended. They address lawsuits involving issues such as transmission of COVID-19 and treatment of people with COVID-19.

“I think the health-care entities need this protection. It was asked even last year what the term would be, and unfortunately we do have to extend it. My prayer is we won’t have to extend it again,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who is a dermatologist. “We have faced COVID for the last two years, but COVID is a very dynamic situation.”

But Laura Youmans, an attorney and lobbyist for the Florida Justice Association trial lawyers group, said the liability protections lower the “standard of care” in health-care facilities.

“This bill is not moving us forward to getting back to business,” Youmans said. “We think that the best way to get back to business is to get back to normal and get back to an acceptance that Floridians deserve the highest standard of care when they go to the doctor, when they go to the hospital or are in a nursing home.”

Florida Hospital Association lobbyist David Mica Jr., however, disputed that the legal protections lower the standard of care.

“Our front-line workers are taxed on every single way that they can (be),” Mica told the House committee. “What we hope is that in this limited exception that you all provided last year that we can extend that to protect against frivolous lawsuits … and keep our focus where it needs to be.”

Under the law passed last year, health-care providers can still face COVID-19 lawsuits. But the legal protections, for example, require a higher standard of proof for plaintiffs. In such cases, plaintiffs have to prove “by the greater weight of the evidence that the health care provider was grossly negligent or engaged in intentional misconduct.”

Also, health-care providers are shielded from lawsuits if they can offer “affirmative” defenses, such as compliance with government-issued health standards.

The proposed extension, which was approved by the House committee Friday in a 15-5 vote, has support from major health-care and business groups.

Along with the Florida Justice Association, opponents include the Florida AFL-CIO.

Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said Friday the extension would allow health-care businesses to “cut corners” on worker safety.

The full Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill Wednesday.

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CBSMiami.com Team