BRADENTON, Fla. (WFLA) – A law enacted to relieve the pressure of litigation from the health care system during the struggle to slow COVID-19 has also silenced potential malpractice claims, according to critics.

Jacqueline Pfeiffer, Joe Bushe’s wife of 40 years, was diagnosed with the disease in February at a Sarasota nursing home where she lived during the week.

“I brought her home on weekends,” Bushe said. “I wanted to take her home when she tested positive.”

Bushe now deals with his loss by recalling their life together and painting — bringing his wife’s face to life with a stroke of his hand.

“This is good therapy for me,” Bushe said as he outlined a watercolor painting of his wife. “She had a great smile. I love her smile.”

But 79 years of smiles ended in the Spring. Bushe claims after his wife was diagnosed with COVID-19, she wanted to come home instead of being transferred to a hospital.

“She just said ‘get me out of here. They’re killing me,'” Bushe said. “I didn’t want her to go to the hospital and she didn’t want to go either.”

She was transferred to a hospital anyway and, despite showing signs of improvement in the following weeks, she died in late March.

“It was over,” Bushe said quietly. “It was a terrible experience. Not a nice way to go.”

Paul Finerty, a spokesperson for the nursing home where Pfeiffer lived, said her oxygen saturation dropped to a “critically low” level.

“It would not have been humane to allow an individual to suffocate in the absence of medical care,” Finerty said. “She was sent via ambulance to the hospital per an order from our nurse practitioner.”

When Bushe could not get answers to questions about his wife’s care, he went to an attorney.

“He said, ‘yes you have malpractice issues but if I bring it before the judge, they’ll throw it out,'” Bushe said.

COVID-19 listed as a cause of death put the state’s new Liability Protection law in play. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it in March 2021, saying at the time it would stop frivolous lawsuits and relieve pressure on the health care system.

“We don’t want to be in a situation were providers are scared,” DeSantis said.

Legal experts say the law shifted the burden of proof to the patients and other plaintiffs, and imposed higher evidentiary burdens that includes proving gross negligence and a reckless disregard for the safety of the patients. According to the stature, if a judge finds the health care provider made “a good faith effort” to follow health care standards “the defendant is immune from civil liability.”

Bushe and and a number of attorneys told 8 On Your Side the law has silenced questions about alleged mistakes.

“If you change that law, you’ll save lives,” Bushe said. “Because the specter of malpractice will deter even those unscrupulous people.”

Similar laws were passed in 30 states. Florida’s version is scheduled to expire June 1, 2023. An estimated 13,000 COVID-19 lawsuits have been filed across the country.

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