Health Care in Massachusetts During the COVID-19 Emergency

Posted by Stacey L. Pietrowicz

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Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive surge in the need for emergency and critical medical care in Massachusetts and across the globe. The increase in patients requiring acute care exhausted facility resources and increased demands on health care workers, who were already stretched thin. The shortage of personal protective equipment, which is still a live issue in the Massachusetts medical community, has only increased those challenges.  

Liability Protections During Covid-19 

In response to the surge on the health care system and the unknown trajectory of the virus, Massachusetts is among many states that enacted legal protection to health care workers and facilities. On April 17, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law legislation providing malpractice liability protection for front-line workers and facilities in the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response. The law immunizes from civil medical malpractice liability if (1) the care was being provided pursuant to a COVID-19 emergency rule; (2) the care was impacted by decisions or activities in response to the COVID-19 outbreak or COVID-19 emergency rules; and (3) the care was provided in good faith. The law does not protect workers or facilities if the care was grossly negligent or the conduct was discriminatory. 

Most Medical Care on Hold During Pandemic 

With concerns looming about whether the Massachusetts health care system could withstand the needs of a pandemic, most routine in-person health care services and procedures were placed on hold beginning in March, and other services conducted remotely using telehealth.

While emergency services continued during this time, people in need of care were avoiding emergency rooms and urgent care visits because they feared contracting the virus. The reduction in visits was so stark that Governor Baker and hospital executives joined forces to create public service announcements encouraging people to seek emergency medical care before conditions worsened. The result was a health care system that was caring primarily for COVID-19 patients and other seriously ill individuals, while other people put medical needs on hold for several months. 

Routine Health Care Resumes 

On May 18, 2020, the "Reopening Massachusetts"  plan allowed the resumption of some non-emergency procedures and deferred care, with hospitals and community health centers reopening May 18, and other providers on May 25. On June 6, health care providers began Phase 2, resuming routine office visits, dental visits, and vision care, all operating under current health guidelines and regulations. The new normal  will require an appointment in most places, with increased screening before patients enter facilities. Once inside, masks will be required, and social distancing enforced. While doctor visits will look and feel differently than they once did, many people are relieved to have access to in-person medical and dental care. 

So what happens next?

As people flood back to doctors, dentists and clinics, the law protecting health care workers and facilities from malpractice liability is still in effect.  Historically, medical errors have been a pervasive problem in Massachusetts, despite having one of the best health care systems in the country. A 2019 Report by the Betsy Lehman Center, a non-regulatory Massachusetts state agency, estimates that at least 62,000 medical errors occur every year in Massachusetts. Nearly a third of those errors cause serious harm, and an additional 12% involve death. 

It is still too early to tell whether the courts will interpret the new law broadly, providing immunity for preventable medical errors occurring during the State of Emergency, but effectively unrelated to COVID-19 diagnosis or treatment, or whether the law will protect front line workers and facilities using their best judgment during unprecedented times. 

SUGARMAN’s team of Boston personal injury attorneys has decades of experience navigating the complexities of medical malpractice litigation. If you or a loved one has been injured because of substandard medical care, explore your options by speaking to a SUGARMAN principal today. Call us at (617) 542-1000, or email us at info@sugarman.com.