A little-noticed law passed by the General Assembly last session (Senate Bill 83) encourages healthcare professionals to volunteer their time in free clinics across the state by providing them with limited medical liability, provided the clinic informs their patients.
The North Carolina Association of Free Clinics, a non-profit organization of member clinics dedicated to improving access to health care for the uninsured and underinsured people of North Carolina, advocated for the reform. Representative McGrady supported the legislation.
Under medical malpractice laws, a patient may pursue a civil claim against physicians or other healthcare providers if the health care provider causes injury or death to the patient through a negligent act or omission.
SB83 removes the requirement for free clinics to obtain medical liability insurance and replaces the insurance requirement with a notice presented to the patient declaring the immunity of the provider. The notice must say that providers are not liable for damages for injury or death unless caused by gross negligence, wanton conduct or the intentional wrongdoing of the provider.
As an extension of the Volunteer Health Services Act, free clinics are now included under the immunity offered to physicians that receive patients from nonprofit community health referral services.
Free clinics provide low-risk primary and preventive health care and there are a lot of doctors and nurses who are willing to volunteer their time in free clinics for the 1.5 million uninsured people in the state. These medical professionals are currently providing $172 million in free services every year but had been concerned about volunteering due to the lack of protection from malpractice liability.
It is worth noting that no lawsuit has been filed against a free clinic in over 10 years; however, this law is intended to encourage more voluntary care by modifying the qualified immunity statute.
Of all the volunteer health care service providers in North Carolina, the biggest is Missions of Mercy. NCMOM is a portable free outreach program of the North Carolina Dental Health Fund which provides free dental services to those in financial need with few or no other options. Volunteers include dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and scores of professional and general volunteers from across the state. Clinics generally provide care for 300 to 800 patients per 2-day event.
Free and charitable clinics a critical part of the healthcare system in our country — providing needed help to those living without access to affordable healthcare, mental healthcare, dental care and prescription drugs. According to the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics (NAFCC), for every $1 invested in free clinics, $7.54 in free healthcare was provided. That means that on average, a $295.00 investment provides free healthcare services to one patient for an entire year.
There are a total of 288 clinics operating in the state of North Carolina, all of which provide free or reduced-cost care to the uninsured or underinsured.
Even after the passage of Obamacare and the recent Supreme Court ruling (King v. Burwell) affirming the nationwide availability of its health insurance subsidies, free and charitable clinics in North Carolina remain at the frontlines of medical care.
“Daily, our clinics hear heartbreaking stories from patients about how health care remains unobtainable even though those stories are not heard in the mainstream media,” says the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics in response to the King v. Burwell decision. “Even more disheartening is that 70 percent of our clinics are reporting that patients are returning to them for help even after they have signed up for insurance coverage, due to issues with having timely access to a doctor, access to affordable medication and more.”