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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolution

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Location: Washington, DC


STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - April 27, 2005)

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By Mr. ALLEN (for himself, Mr. CHAMBLISS, Mr. INHOFE, Mr. COBURN, Mr. TALENT, Mr. CORNYN, and Mr. ISAKSON):

S. 929. A bill to provide liability protection to nonprofit volunteer pilot organizations flying for public benefit and to the pilots and staff of such organizations; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. ALLEN. Mr. President, I rise in support of legislation that I reintroduced today with a number of my Senate colleagues--the Volunteer Pilot Organization Protection Act of 2005.

The spirit of volunteerism is indelibly rooted in our Nation's history. From when early settlers landed in Jamestown in 1607 to when our citizen soldiers took up arms against the British Crown in the Revolutionary War, volunteerism has always been a part of American culture.

But that unwavering spirit did not stop there, it has continued and thrived in many individuals and charitable organizations today. One such group of organizations that has selflessly given back so much to Virginians and Americans are charitable medical transportation systems operated by volunteer pilot organizations, VPOs.

The mission and purpose of public benefit and non-profit volunteer pilot organizations involved in patient transport is to ensure that no financially needy patient is denied access to distant specialized medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment for lack of a means of long-distance medical air transportation. The principal goal is to remove the geographical and financial burdens that would deny access to specialized care.

Last year public benefit flying non-profit volunteer pilot organizations provided long-distance, no-cost transportation for over 40,000 patients and their escorts in times of special need. Mr. President, this year, that figure will likely grow to roughly 54,000 people.

One such organization that has played an intricate part in this mission is Angel Flight. Angel Flight is a not-for-profit grassroots organization with a volunteer corps of more than 6,200 volunteer pilots/plane owners--divided into six regions across the United States--who fly under the banner of Angel Flight America. Angel Flight provides flights of hope and healing by transporting patients and their families in private planes, free of charge, to hospitals for medical treatment.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Transportation and the FAA closed airports and grounded commercial air traffic, but the FAA allowed Angel Flight volunteers to fly. Angel Flight pilots flew firefighters, families of victims of the bombings, Red Cross personnel, medical and other supplies including the protective booties for the Search and Rescue dogs to New York and Washington, DC.

In my years of public service, I have always maintained that we must provide access to care to all Virginians and Americans. Medical care should be available to all individuals. Sadly, our Nation is facing a medical crisis. Medical malpractice insurance costs and Medicare physician reimbursement are forcing many of our doctors to stop seeing ``high-risk'' patients or Medicare beneficiaries and in some cases forcing our doctors to give up practice altogether and retire. As a result, patients have to travel great distances to receive the medical care that they need to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Unfortunately, a number of these patients do not have the financial means to travel long distances, thus, ultimately denying patients access to life-saving or quality of life improving specialized treatment.

We can say the same with patients who rely on volunteer pilot organizations such as Angel Flight or one of its subsidiary groups like Mercy Medical Airlift in my home Commonwealth of Virginia. Unfortunately, due to the public's apparent notion that organizations that use airplanes are financially well-off and have deep pockets, many of the volunteer pilot organizations are open to frivolous and junk lawsuits. This leads to an access to care issue.

Also, aviation insurance has skyrocketed up in price and non-owned aircraft liability insurance is no longer reasonably available to volunteer pilot organizations. Many insurance companies had always provided this type of insurance but post September 11, 2001, this insurance is scarcely found and if found, the costs have increased greatly, to the astronomical sums of $5 million a year. Because of the exorbitant costs of insurance, volunteer pilot organizations have a difficult time recruiting and retaining pilots and professional persons.

I would like to submit an editorial written by the Virginian Pilot. This editorial correctly identifies the obstacles that these volunteer pilot organizations have to go through. I would like that editorial inserted here.

That is why I decided to introduce the Volunteer Pilot Organization Protection Act. In 1997, Congress passed the Volunteer Protection Act, which handled much of the liability issue for volunteer endeavors in the country; however, this legislation did not adequately address aviation-related matters.

My bill amends the highly regarded Good Samaritan Act to provide necessary liability protections in the area of charitable medical air transportation and promote volunteer pilot organizations. More specifically, this legislation will protect volunteer pilot organizations, their boards and small paid staff and nonflying volunteers from liability should there be an accident. The VPOs are simply the ``match-makers'' between the volunteer pilot willing to help a neighbor and the needy patient family. The pilot has full and sole responsibility for conducting the flight in a safe manner in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations. In addition, this legislation will provide liability protection for the individual volunteer pilot over and above the liability insurance that they are required to carry.

Furthermore, the Volunteer Pilot Protection Act will provide liability protection for ``referring agencies'' who tell their patients that the charitable flight service is available. Referring hospitals and clinics are becoming unwilling to inform their patients that charitable medical air transportation help is available for fear of a liability against them should something happen in a subsequent volunteer pilot flight. Hence, organizations like the Shriners Hospital System and the American Cancer Society would be able to make known available volunteer pilot services to transport their patients to Shriners or other hospitals where they receive care.

I know a few people have concerns that this bill would provide blanket immunity to Volunteer Pilot Organizations but I want to stress that my bill requires insurance on the part of the pilot and if there is negligence on behalf of the pilot, the injured party does have legal recourse. This bill does not provide blanket immunity to VPOs, but has been carefully worded to allow legal action to be brought against the insurance policy of the pilot in event of negligence.

By providing volunteer pilots with liability protection, insurance rates for these pilots will ultimately be reduced. Therefore, more pilots will be able to afford insurance and fly for the public good. With less-costly insurance available, I am confident that more pilots will generously give their time to fly for and help the medically needy.

This bill enjoys the support of a number of charitable organizations, including the Children's Organ Transplant Association, the National Organization for Rare Disorders, the Air Care Alliance, the Independent Charities of America, the Health and Medical Research Charities of America, the National Association of Hospital Hospitality Houses, and many others.

Not only does this legislation enjoy the support of numerous charitable organizations, it also enjoyed the support of the United States House of Representatives. On September 14, 2004, the House of Representatives passed the Volunteer Pilot Organization Protection Act of2004 by a vote of 385-12. Mr. President, this is a clear indication that this bill has broad bipartisan support in the House and I know the House will once again pass this commonsense legislation.

I am confident that this legislation will start a trend to help curb the large amounts of counterproductive lawsuits, lower insurance costs, and promote the spirit of volunteerism that has been rooted in the framework of our country's storied history. I, along with the volunteer pilots and organizations, and with the thousands of families who rely and may rely on the help of volunteer pilot organizations, urge the Senate to quickly and finally pass this legislation in the 109th Congress.

I would like to thank Congresswoman THELMA DRAKE, our newest member to the Virginia team, for taking over this legislation for former Congressman Ed Schrock and introducing the companion bill on the House side. In addition, I would also like to thank the original cosponsors of this legislation, Senators Chambliss, Inhofe, Coburn, Talent, Cornyn, and Isakson for their support as we work to pass this vitally necessary legislation.
[From the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, ÐMar. 11, 2003]

Shield Helpful Pilots From Frivolous Lawsuits

In the realm of volunteers, few outshine the generous folks at Angel Flight.

This nonprofit organization flies patients for whom air transport would be otherwise unaffordable to medical facilities around the country. Private pilots spirit individuals to dialysis, chemotherapy sessions, organ transplants and other surgeries by donating their aircraft and their valuable time. The goal is a noble one: to ensure that no one in need is denied medical care for lack of long-distance transportation.

But in our lawsuit-happy society, even these warmhearted souls can't escape the possibility of landing in court. While a law known as the Volunteer Protection Act shields most people who give their time to worthy causes from frivolous suits, it doesn't cover volunteer pilots or flight organizers. Liability insurance costs for Angel Flight and similar nonprofits have skyrocketed from $1,000 to more than $25,000 annually.

This prohibitive price tag threatens the future of Angel Flight, which is funded solely through donations. A spokeswoman for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, headquartered in Virginia Beach, said the burden will ultimately fall on sick and needy patients. And with 600 volunteer pilots transporting an average of 100 medical cases a month, literally thousands of lives may be affected by this oversight in the law.

Fortunately, lawmakers are paying attention. U.S. Rep. Ed Schrock recently introduced bipartisan legislation to add volunteer-pilot organizations to the ranks of those covered by the Volunteer Protection Act. U.S. Sen. George Allen is expected to introduce a similar measure in the Senate. Congress should pass these bills, the sooner the better. Keeping Angel Flight aloft is literally a life-and-death matter.

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