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House panel signs off on extending state lawsuit protection to UM doctors

A move to prohibit medical malpractice lawsuits against University of Miami doctors working at Jackson Memorial Hospital received a favorable vote in its first Florida House committee stop Friday.

House Bill 1393 would extend a state protection known as "sovereign immunity" to doctors from nonprofit universities or colleges with accredited medical schools that contract with public teaching hospitals.

UM officials have pushed for the change for years, saying it would allow its doctors to work on the same playing field as Jackson doctors, residents and interns already covered by the state's protection.

"This is a necessary bill," said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Wells, now a lobbyist for UM. "We need to get everyone under the umbrella."

Supporters and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank Artiles, a South Miami-Dade Republican, said the bill would not only apply to Jackson but also to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Shands Healthcare at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Shands Jacksonville Medical Center, Orlando Health and Tampa General Hospital.

But Debra Henley, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, a trial lawyers group, said only UM and Jackson would be immediately affected by the proposal. And if UM doctors are going to receive protections typically reserved for state employees, then some of Florida's public records laws should also apply to the university, she argued.

She said the public should know, for example, salaries of UM doctors and if UM enters into agreements with pharmaceutical companies to test drugs on Jackson patients. "The taxpayers are going to be picking up the tab now for negligence," she said.

The bill received support from UM and Jackson, Florida International University, Miami-Dade County and a couple of doctors groups. The House Civil Justice Subcommittee moved the proposal forward, with three South Florida Democrats -- Reps. Marty Kiar of Davie, Cynthia Stafford of Miami and Richard Steinberg of Miami Beach -- voting against.