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April 28, 2020

The WSMA Calls on Governor to Clarify Where and When Care May Be Delivered

SEATTLE - Acting at the urging of many in the medical community, including the Washington State Medical Association, Gov. Jay Inslee issued Proclamation 20-24 on March 19, imposing restrictions on "non-urgent" medical procedures. The WSMA today is urging Gov. Inslee to clarify the application of his nonurgent procedure delay order so that physicians have clear direction on the conditions under which patient care may be delivered.

Acting out of the abundance of caution, many physicians have necessarily opted to postpone surgeries to comply with the order and conserve resources, especially personal protective equipment (PPE). In other cases, patients have postponed routine care out of uncertainty about what care can be received, as well as whether it's safe to go to the clinic.

"Since the imposition of the order, we've heard numerous stories from physicians who describe situations where their patients with chronic health conditions are at home, in pain, and unable to schedule necessary procedures while their conditions worsen," said William K. Hirota, MD, president of the WSMA. "Patients need assurances that they can, and should, access necessary health care, and physicians need assurance their clinical decisions won't lead to criminal penalties."

Some of the issues needing clarification include defining what constitutes "harm" in determining which procedures can safely be delayed for three months pursuant to the order. Furthermore, clinicians should be able to use clinical judgment to determine performance of procedures considered to be non-urgent or "elective."

In addition to asking for clarification of the elective procedures proclamation, the WSMA submitted a proposal to the governor and the legislature that asks for assurance that physicians won't be held civilly liable for exercising their clinical judgment when providing needed care during the pandemic. The WSMA's proposal would provide health care professionals immunity from civil liability for any adverse outcome alleged to have been sustained because of any acts or omissions undertaken in good faith while providing health care services during emergencies, such as this COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal would extend the same liability protections that are currently afforded to emergency volunteer health practitioners while an emergency declaration is in effect to physicians and other providers in our state who are responding to the pandemic.

Several states have already taken steps to address this threat, including New York, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. "There are criminal penalties for treating a patient outside of compliance with the order. And there is potential civil liability for delivering care during the pandemic, as well as for delaying care where it results in adverse health outcomes. That's why it's so important that physicians get clarity on delay order, as well as liability protections for how care is having to be delivered during the pandemic," Dr. Hirota said. "Physicians need to be able to proceed with certainty and without fear of retribution, so that patients can get the care they need."

Dr. Hirota continued, "It's deeply troubling to think that patients are not receiving care they need because they fear accessing needed treatment or because physicians, acting out of an abundance of caution, are applying too strict of an interpretation on the governor's proclamation limiting elective or non-urgent procedures. The health care community needs clarity now, so that physicians can operate with certainty, and patients can get the care they need."

For more information, contact:

Cindy Sharpe
813.244.2883 (office/mobile)

Graham Short
206.956.3633 (cell/text)

About the WSMA

The Washington State Medical Association represents more than 11,000 physicians, physician assistants, resident physicians and medical students in Washington state. The WSMA has advocated on behalf of the house of medicine more than 125 years. Our vision is to make Washington state the best place to practice medicine and receive care.

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