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Question of the Month ~ October 2013


Q. What state laws and programs are in place to encourage physicians to volunteer in free clinics?

Every state in the Midwest, except Nebraska, has a law in place to help protect certain volunteer physicians from being sued in conjunction with care they provide, according to the American Medical Association. The goal of these state laws is to promote volunteerism in the medical community and help care for the uninsured.
A handful of states in this region, too, have special licensing programs for retired doctors wishing to serve their communities.
The cost of purchasing liability insurance or defending oneself against lawsuits can be a barrier for physicians who are considering providing services at no cost. (Some are not otherwise protected against civil liability because they are retired or their existing insurance policies are limited in scope.)
State legislation aimed at easing concerns about liability generally fall into three different types. The first category includes laws that shield volunteer physicians from civil lawsuits. These laws typically provide exceptions for negligence or willful misconduct. Patients must generally be informed that physicians are immune from liability and must sign a waiver.
In North Dakota, for example, a provider who offers services at a free clinic is not liable for personal-injury civil action related to the care provided, except in the case of “intentional misconduct or gross negligence.” Other states with similar laws include Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota.
In a second group of states, there are programs in place to purchase professional liability insurance for volunteer physicians who are not otherwise covered. Under Minnesota’s Volunteer Health Care Provider Program, a physician agrees that he or she will not receive compensation for care and submits a statement that his or her medical license is active and without restrictions. The state, using funds derived from medical licensure fees, then purchases malpractice insurance policies for participating physicians.
In a third group of states, certain physicians are considered employees of the state when providing free care. Iowa, for example, provides for immunity when a physician enrolls in a state volunteer health care provider program.
Other states that have similar initiatives include Kansas and Wisconsin. Under Wisconsin’s Volunteer Health Care Provider program, physicians must submit a joint application with the nonprofit agency or school at which they plan to provide care. Once approved, the physician is considered an agent of the state of Wisconsin and is provided liability protection.
Some states have also adopted special licensing measures to encourage retired medical professionals to use their skills helping patients in free clinics. Indiana, for example, offers a special “inactive” license for retired physicians. Under this special reduced-cost license, the physician cannot receive compensation for care and cannot maintain an office or practice. And doctors from other states can receive clearance to provide free care in Indiana for a maximum of 30 total days under a “limited scope” license. Kansas also offers a limited-scope license for retired doctors and charges a reduced fee.
A retired physician in Michigan can receive a special volunteer license for no fee. Ohio offers a similar type of license to retired physicians who plan to provide free care, but there are some restrictions (they cannot deliver babies or perform surgery).

Article written by Kate Tormey, CSG Midwest assistant editor. Question of the Month highlights an inquiry received by CSG Midwest through its Information Help Line.