A last-minute amendment to a COVID-19 relief package in the Wisconsin Legislature may make it easier for nursing homes to claim immunity for any harm done to a resident whether directly related to coronavirus or not.
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Republicans’ late amendment greatly expands immunity for operators.

A last-minute change to the COVID-19 Relief Bill approved earlier this month by the state Legislature expanding legal protections to health care workers beyond those treating patients with the virus deprives people of their basic right to safety, an Eau Claire lawyer and former state Assembly member told UpNorthNews. 

An amendment to the bill by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, minutes before that body voted on the relief bill expanded protections against lawsuits for health care workers from those treating COVID-19 cases to all patients they treat. 

That action flies in the face of legal measures enacted to protect against wrongdoing, said Dana Wachs, an attorney with the Madison-based Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs law firm. 

“This is unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable,” Wachs said of the amendment to Act 185, part of the COVID-19 relief package approved on April 14 by the Assembly and the following day by the Senate. “They’re saying you could drop someone down the stairs, or give them the wrong medication, and (health care providers) would not be held accountable at all.”

As proposed, Act 185 granted health care providers immunity from civil lawsuits directly related to the treatment of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

The legislation covered the time from Gov. Tony Evers’ declaration of a public health emergency on March 12 until 60 days after the projected lifting of Evers’ “Safer at Home” order on May 26. 

However, just before the relief bill was approved by the Assembly on April 14, Vos introduced an amendment that eliminated language related to “coronavirus” in multiple references. 

The result of that action, Wachs said, is to provide health care workers with immunity from civil lawsuits during the emergency order and for 60 days after it ends, regardless of whether they are treating patients for COVID-19 or for other maladies.

“This language expands protections for medical providers from situations specifically involving COVID-19 to all medical situations,” he said.

Advocates for the COVID-19 immunity provision said it was important to provide protections to health care providers because the virus represents a new, unpredictable illness. They said they believe the amended version ensures those protections, but still allows for the possibility of lawsuits in cases of injury or death in health care situations. 

Democratic lawmakers said they objected to the last-minute changes but had little time to review it and wanted to approve the relief bill despite misgivings about Vos’ amendment.

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, said he was trying to ask questions about the amendment during the Senate’s vote on the relief package but was not allowed to do so. 

Vos has refused comment on his amendment. 

Wisconsin Hospital Association officials said the new version expands immunity for health care providers beyond COVID-19 treatment. 

Wachs agrees with that assessment. He said he simply doesn’t understand the reasoning behind absolving caregivers of the responsibility to provide quality care for not only people infected with coronavirus but all patients during the emergency order period.

“Here they are going to let nursing homes, hospitals and other health care practitioners completely off the hook for this period of time. That just isn’t right,” Wachs said.