AT ANY given time, about 13 percent of the homeless women in this city are pregnant. Many are substance abusers who have multiple health problems that threaten their babies. Clinics that serve the homeless have some staff doctors, of course, but no full-time obstetricians to care for these high-risk pregnancies, because the cost of providing medical malpractice insurance for such specialists -- about $57,000 each -- is prohibitive. At the same time, medical society leaders estimate that scores of qualified physicians would like to volunteer at the clinics but cannot do so because their own malpractice insurance does not cover such a situation. The solution, which has precedent in seven states, is obvious. The city's Good Samaritan law, which immunizes from civil suit people who provide volunteer medical care at the scene of accidents or other emergencies, should be extended to protect doctors who volunteer at non-profit clinics.
The American Tort Law Reform Association, working with the city's health care providers for the homeless, has drafted a simple bill that would do the trick. It doesn't protect a doctor from suit in the case of an act or omission that is an intentional wrong or a case of wanton disregard for the patient's health or safety. But it would immunize those physicians who work on their own time and without any compensation at free clinics. Such a law would be a boon to all the homeless who need medical care because it would enable any doctor to volunteer to help without risk of financial ruin. The obstetricians, though, are in particular demand and are most expensive to insure. If the malpractice threat is removed, sick and homeless pregnant women will have a much better chance to deliver healthy babies and overcome their own addiction problems. If the clinics can attract volunteers, they intend to match patients with doctors so that continuing personal relationships are established and sporadic health care, so often the lot of the poor, will be regularized.
This badly needed bill has not yet been introduced in the City Council. Sponsors hope to interest H. R. Crawford, who is the chairman of the council's Human Services Committee, in taking the lead. The proposal should get quick attention.