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Legislators vote to protect UM doctors at Jackson from lawsuits

In a long-sought move, the University of Miami won a legislative victory on Wednesday when Florida lawmakers agreed to extend state lawsuit protection to university doctors teaching in public hospitals.

The state protects government hospital employees, residents and interns –- including those at Miami’s Jackson Health System –- from major medical malpractice judgments. But UM medical school doctors who teach at Jackson are not covered by the protected status, known as sovereign immunity.

For two decades, UM officials have pushed to receive the same state benefit, saying patients often sue the university instead of Jackson because of UM’s deep pockets.

The university spends $40 million a year on malpractice, said Ron Book, one of the UM’s lobbyists in the state Capitol. State protection, he added, could cut that expense in half.

“This good bill will even the playing field,” said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, speaking on the House floor for SB 1676, approved Tuesday in the Senate. The measure was pushed in the House by former Rep. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, R-Hialeah, and later by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami.

The legislation, which now heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, would also affect other public and nonprofit hospitals that have teaching relationships with universities. That includes Tampa General, a nonprofit.

In Miami, Jackson backed the measure -– as did Florida International University, which wants students of its young medical school to train at Jackson side-by-side with UM doctors. Under that scenario, if an FIU student were involved in a malpractice case that a UM doctor also worked on, UM feared the patient would sue UM.

Trial lawyers repeatedly opposed the measure as it moved through committees, saying it condoned medical negligence and did not impose strong enough open records requirements on private universities that would now be protected by state government.

But with a Legislature keen on tort reform, the bill made it through the House with little opposition and unanimously through the Senate.