Georgia Lawmakers File Bill to Bring Fairness to ER victims
After suffering from a headache for four days, then numbness on the left side of his face, Phenix City, Alabama, resident Rodney Fretwell went to the nearest emergency room – in Columbus, Georgia. What a mistake.
The ER physician told Rodney that he suspected the problem was a pulled muscle and reminded Rodney that the cost of testing for a stroke was close to $1,000. The physician sent Rodney home with prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and blood pressure medicine, without doing any blood work or taking any X-rays.
Rodney went back to work, and within two hours the left side of his body was paralyzed. The paralysis was so severe that he could not walk without dragging his leg. He was taken back to the ER and began vomiting in the waiting room. After several hours of waiting, Rodney finally underwent a CAT scan which indicated a lesion on the left side of his brain. Still, the ER physician told Rodney that he suspected a pulled muscle – not a stroke – and sent Rodney home with a prescription for aspirin and instructions to contact a neurosurgeon in the morning.
During the night, Rodney’s vision started to blur and his vomiting became violent. In the morning his wife Sherry called an ambulance. She told the hospital that her husband had already been to the ER twice and had not received adequate treatment. Finally, the hospital admitted Rodney and ran tests for several hours, which confirmed he had suffered a stroke.
Today, Rodney is unable to work because he experiences constant numbness and tingling, and has trouble with balance. A small businessman, he was the only employee of his awning company. Sherry worries about their two children – and Rodney’s future medical costs. “We’re just everyday people,” she says. “This could be disastrous for us.”
Rodney says that if he had known about the “Emergency Room immunity” provision in Georgia’s law – a result of Senate Bill 3, passed in 2005 – he would have sought care in his home state of Alabama.
Rodney is not alone. Every year, thousands of patients like him are injured or killed in a Georgia ER as the result of medical negligence and abuse – including mothers in labor, who are typically admitted through the emergency room. But Georgia law prevents them from holding anyone accountable and achieving justice.
The ER Immunity provision in Georgia law creates accountability-free zones, where health care workers can operate without fear of consequences. It forces patients injured in the ER to prove “gross negligence,” a standard that allows emergency care providers to get away with misconduct just shy of intentionally harming patients.
What does “gross negligence” mean, exactly? In theory, it means proving that a medical provider willfully and knowingly mistreated you. Particularly in the emergency room, “gross negligence” is virtually impossible to prove after the fact.
Unfortunately, the only people who can restore fairness and accountability to Georgia emergency rooms are the same people who created the ER Immunity provision – the Georgia General Assembly. But last week, our lawmakers gave us reason for hope.
On the last day of February, a group of legislators filed a bipartisan emergency room accountability act that would restore accountability to Georgia emergency rooms.
Senate Bill 286 would remove the word “gross,” leaving injured patients with a clearer path to justice. It would keep in place the higher “clear and convincing evidence” burden of proof provisions, and Georgia judges would still be required to tell a jury that practicing medicine in an emergency room is more difficult than a regular practice.
Simply put, SB 286 would restore fairness for ER patients, and would restore the standard of care as set by similar emergency rooms and similar doctors.
Unfortunately, SB 286 was filed late in the 2007 legislative session and is a long shot to make it onto the governor’s desk this year. But the bill has strong support, including co-signers Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) and Senate Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg), as well as over a half dozen Senators from both parties.
If you live in Georgia, don’t wait to learn more about SB 286. Restoring accountability and fairness will provide justice for those patients injured or killed in our hospital emergency rooms, and can save lives too.