CONCORD, N.H. -- Legislation that would protect New Hampshire doctors and other medical professionals from lawsuits if they report someone as unfit to drive ran into a potential roadblock in the Senate on Tuesday.
The bill has the support of the state branches of the AARP and AAA but members of the Transportation Committee said they were concerned drivers could be inconvenienced if the reports are unfounded.
"What if the doctor is wrong? What are we doing to our senior citizens? First of all, it is going to scare the bejesus out of them," said Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett.
Committee Chairman Jim Rausch asked if the bill is needed since doctors can make the reports now.
"I’m not sure they need immunity," said Rausch, R-Derry.
Richard Bailey, director of the state Division of Motor Vehicles, testified the bill is an attempt to encourage doctors who might be fearful of reporting someone to do so. He said a license suspension could occur in as little as five days and acknowledged a hearing -- if the driver requested one -- most likely would not happen before some suspensions took effect.
Bailey said the driver could bring evidence to the hearing, including evaluations by other doctors, to support his or her right to continue driving. He said he had anecdotal evidence medical issues are under-reported due to fear of being sued and argued any potential inconvenience had to be balanced against the public’s safety.
AARP of New Hampshire, AAA of Northern New England and the New Hampshire Medical Society all support the bill. They said the immunity protection will encourage doctors to file the reports out of a concern for the safety of the patient and others.
"It doesn’t require reporting. It just gives immunity," said medical society spokeswoman Janet Monahan. Doctors generally try talking with a patient about relinquishing a driver’s license, but some patients ignore their advice, she said.
Policies vary greatly on how to handle at-risk drivers around the country. About two-thirds of the states grant physicians immunity or legal protection from prosecution for reporting a potentially at-risk driver, according to AAA.
Three years ago, New Hampshire repealed a law requiring road tests for drivers 75 and older that AARP, AAA and other organizations opposed because it was based on a person’s age, not ability to drive. Lawmakers left in place the voluntary reporting process for doctors.
A few cases involve temporary medication issues, but most are permanent conditions involving cognitively impaired individuals who will not be getting better, Bailey said.
Boutin said he also had concerns that medical records being in the custody of the Division of Motor Vehicles.