1st state passes law to decriminalize medical errors

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently signed a bill into law that shields healthcare providers from being criminally charged for medical errors, making it the first state to do so.

HB 159 ensures that healthcare providers, including nurses, "shall be immune from criminal liability for any harm or damages alleged to arise from an act or omission relating to the provision of health services." It includes exceptions for negligence and intentional harm. 

In 2022, RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse at Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was convicted for a fatal medication error she made while working as a nurse in 2017. Ms. Vaught lost her nursing license and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation. The case garnered national attention and spurred a far-reaching debate surrounding the criminalization and reporting of medical errors and patient safety culture. 

In wake of the case, nurses and medical groups nationwide — including the American Nurses Association and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement — have called for systemwide workforce and safety reforms to focus on harm prevention, arguing that the criminalization of errors would discourage workers from reporting mistakes. 

Ms. Vaught was scheduled to speak in Kentucky following the passage of HB 159 April 24, according to a Louisville Public Media report. 

The Kentucky Hospital Association said it supports the new law.

"HB 159 was a good piece of legislation and we were happy to support it," the group said in a statement to Becker's. "Our nurses should not be held criminally liable for a mere mistake and the legal system already has ample means available to address any true negligence."

Some health systems also anticipate the legislation will support recrutiment and retention efforts. 

"This legislation provides reassurance to our caregivers who enter the medical field to help and support our patients that they will not be subject to criminal prosecution for unintentional mistakes," Kit Barry, a spokesperson for Louisville, Ky.-based Baptist Health, told Becker's. "Furthermore, it adds a comfort level that will help in recruitment and encourage reporting of mistakes which is essential to preventing future errors. Willful misconduct will continue to be punished."

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