Anyone who has ever complained of excruciating waits in the emergency room to be seen by a doctor and then waiting even longer for a hospital bed has a chance now to speak up.

Not in a get-in-the-face way with a hospital administrator; rather by lending support to federal legislation that aims to help the public receive better and faster care in emergency rooms.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) commissioned a survey of American voters last month to gauge public sentiment toward legislative proposals that would help address overcrowded conditions in emergency rooms, physicians who fear groundless malpractice lawsuits and the high costs hospitals face running emergency rooms.

Two-thirds of Americans surveyed said they favor legislative provisions of the "Access to Emergency Medical Services Act" introduced in the U.S. House last year with a companion bill filed earlier this month in the Senate. Public Opinion Strategies conducted the survey and involved 800 "likely voters" nationwide.

About 300 emergency room physicians from around the nation are in Washington, D.C., this week to lobby for hearings to consider the legislation. In addition, the physicians are asking the public back home to send messages to their congressional leaders to support the legislation.

Lobbyists for ACEP say getting hearings scheduled is an uphill battle given it is late in the congressional session and lawmakers are behind on other issues. At the same time, there are 22 House sponsors to the bill, while the push is just getting started to get backing in the Senate. The American Medical Association is still reviewing the legislation.

About 20 emergency-room physicians from Florida will be joining the lobbying effort, said Beth Brunner, executive director of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians.

Emergency rooms in Florida face 7 million patient visits a year and it is increasing, while the availability of physicians to provide coverage is shrinking and financial support from insurers and the government is diminishing. Myriad complex issues have put emergency rooms in a crisis mode while they have become the safety net of health care for everyone, she said.

"We need to provide the support mechanisms so each community is safeguarded," she said. "Our challenge is making sure everyone is protected and has access."

She didn't have statistics on how many emergency room physicians have left Florida to practice elsewhere, but said 50 percent of those who completed residency training in emergency medicine in Florida are leaving for other states with a less hostile malpractice climate.

As proposed, the federal legislation would provide lawsuit protection, known as sovereign immunity, to emergency room physicians for treating uninsured patients, similar to how doctors are granted lawsuit immunity when they treat indigent patients in designated community health centers. About 62 percent of surveyed Americans said they favored the lawsuit protection, according to ACEP.

Physicians in a multitude of specialties are no longer taking emergency-room calls, after fulfilling privileges requirements, because of the risk of being sued or because they can't acquire malpractice insurance or afford the premiums. That has led to limited coverage of necessary specialists in emergency rooms, which must meet coverage requirements and is affecting quality of care.

Some emergency-room physicians who are employed by hospitals have sovereign immunity but that's limited to 24 public hospitals in Florida out of 225 hospitals statewide, said Dr. Larry Hobbs, vice president of the Florida group of emergency physicians. That lawsuit protection was put in place years ago when the public hospitals were getting off the ground.

"There hasn't been a new sovereign immunity hospital in this state for decades," said Hobbs, who is an emergency room physician at Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center.

No states have adopted sovereign immunity protection for emergency room physicians but the Florida Legislature was close to doing so in 2003 when Gov. Jeb Bush called three special sessions to address medical malpractice issues, he said.

If no headway is made this year at the federal level, then the effort to pass sovereign immunity legislation at the state level will be resurrected, he said.

A second component of the proposed federal legislation calls for providing hospitals with money to help alleviate "boarding" of emergency room patients in temporary beds in hallways and holding bays until an inpatient bed becomes available. The legislation would provide hospitals with incentive payments to meet prompt admission standards of emergency room patients. The ACEP inquiry found that 71 percent of surveyed Americans favor the measure.

Lastly, the federal legislation would provide financial help to hospitals and emergency rooms by a 10-percent increase in Medicare reimbursement for Medicare patients treated in the emergency room. What is sought is $500 million for the two financial components of the legislation.

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