Bill would give health care providers criminal immunity for medical mistakes

House approves measure to cheers from the gallery

By: - February 8, 2024 5:28 pm

Ellen Tinker. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

FRANKFORT — In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus swept through the country, Ellen Tinker had a “wake up” moment. 

Living in Washington D.C. at the time and studying political science at George Washington University, Tinker remembers thinking: “I felt like I was going to wake up one day in the middle of my life and be like, ‘I’ve never helped anyone.’” 

Her solution to this worry? Apply to nursing school. 

That decision sent her off her political science path and to Kentucky, where she attended the University of Louisville School of Nursing. She graduated in December with her bachelor’s degree and will begin working as a registered nurse at UofL this spring. 

“Even though the afterglow of the ‘health care heroes’ thing and ‘we love nurses’ … being plastered everywhere in America, now that that’s kind of died down, the job of nursing has not gotten any easier,” Tinker said. “And in some areas, it’s gotten even harder. But the people who still chose to go to nursing school or stayed in it or are continuing in that profession have a kind of dedication that I’m not sure any other profession has, and I’m really proud of that.” 

That’s why Tinker, donning a Kentucky Nurses Association pin, came to the Kentucky Capitol Thursday to rally in support of House Bill 159, which would decriminalize medical mistakes made by health care providers. 

Rep. Patrick Flannery, R-Olive Hill, spoke to nurses in the Kentucky House chambers ahead of a vote on his bill to decriminalize medical mistakes. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

Sponsored by Rep. Patrick Flannery, R-Olive Hill, HB159 passed out of the House 94-0 to cheers in the gallery. Under this bill, health care providers would still be liable for any “gross negligence or wanton, willful, malicious or intentional misconduct.” 

On the floor Flannery said the bill is about being “proactive” in protecting “frontline”  health care providers from “inadvertent” errors. He also said he wants to get ahead of what’s happened elsewhere in the country. 

For example, a 2022 Tennessee case in which a nurse was found guilty after a patient died from a medical mistake led to protests and resignations within the health care community, KFF Health News has reported. 

The Kentucky Nurses Association says that if medical mistakes are criminalized, providers are less likely to report them. 

“Hopefully,” Flannery said, his bill “will prevent the blurring of the lines between criminal and civil matters.” 

House passage of HB 159 is good news for Kentucky nurses, but the bill still has some legislative hurdles to jump, like passing in the Senate. Should it pass there, it will go to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk, where he could sign or veto it.

Meanwhile, Tinker said the thought of being punished for an honest mistake is “scary,” especially as a new nurse. 

Catherine Beechie (Photo Provided)

“It feels like the system isn’t seeing nurses as humans, it’s seeing nurses as robots,” she told the Lantern. “We are not perfect. We are people just like our patients. And even though we train, and practice to hone our skills, we still do make mistakes.”

Catherine Beechie, who is currently working toward a master’s degree in nursing at UofL, said “I’ve gotten to see how easy it would be to make a mistake” in nursing, especially considering hectic conditions and noisy halls serving as the background for serious conversations about complicated health issues. 

“It’s controlled chaos, but it’s chaos,” said Beechie, a former teacher. “And it’s loud. And you’re getting tons and tons of interruptions.” Beechie said that without the bill becoming law, “it is terrifying to think that it’s not a system that’s being held accountable. It’s an individual.”  

Meanwhile, “I’m really excited to see where this bill goes,” Tinker said. “And most importantly, I hope that it helps bring comfort to people who are planning to go into nursing school and have maybe seen stories in recent years on the news of nurses being criminalized and I hope it gives them peace of mind.” 


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.