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Florida doctors get ok to counsel patients on guns--for now.

A U.S. District Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction that stops Florida from enforcing a new law barring physicians from asking their patients about firearms ownership, saying that the law might be unconstitutional and has a good chance of being over-turned.

The injunction, granted by Judge Marcia Cooke, immediately prevents the state from pursuing disciplinary action against physicians who inquire about firearms in the home and counsel on firearms-injury prevention.

The decision won praise from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has fought the law.

"The AAP is pleased the court recognized the confidential nature of the physician-patient relationship and the critical importance of this counseling, which is a cornerstone of pediatric care," Dr. O. Marion Burton, AAP president, said in a statement.

"Today's court victory ensures that important conversations about firearm safety can continue to take place between doctors and patients."

The Florida law, passed last spring and signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) in June, forbids licensed health care practitioners from asking about gun ownership unless the practitioner believes "in good faith" that the information is relevant to patients' and family members' medical care or safety. Under the law, physicians and other health care practitioners also cannot record information on firearms in patients' medical records.

Violators of the law could be subject to state medical board disciplinary action and sanctions.

The Florida chapters of the AAP, the American College of Physicians, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, along with six individual Floridaphysicians, filed suit in June against the law, saying it substantially curtails their First Amendment rights to exchange information with patients about gun safety. The judge agreed.

"Plaintiffs state that, as a result of the law, they are no longer (i) asking patients about firearm ownership, (ii) following up on routine questions regarding firearm ownership, (iii) providing patient intake questionnaires that include questions about firearms, or (iv) orally counseling patients about firearm safety," Judge Cooke wrote in her injunction.

Proponents of the Florida law have argued that it represents a Second Amendment issue involving the right to bear arms. However, Judge Cooke disagreed, calling it a First Amendment - or freedom of speech - issue instead.

"A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect nor interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess, or use firearms," she wrote.

Dr. Louis St. Petery, executive vice president of the Florida chapter of the AAP, said that he hadn't changed the way he counseled patients based on the Florida law, but he said that younger physicians - those who haven't been in practice for very long - were more intimidated by the law and the potential penalties. "If a parent felt you were out of line, they could refer you to the Board of Medicine," he said, adding that the penalties for violating the law range from a reprimand to $10,000 in fines and license suspension. "What physician wants to hire a lawyer and go before the Board of Medicine to defend their position on gun safety?"

Now that the injunction is in place, Dr. St. Petery said, "a lot of the people [physicians] who shied away from talking about it have gone back to feeling confident discussing gun safety with patients and their families."

"Thank goodness for the preliminary injunction," Dr. St. Petery said, adding that if the law had been in place for very long, he expected the state would have seen an increase in gun deaths.

Gov. Scott has told the state's attorney general to appeal the injunction to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Dr. St. Petery said, but the injunction remains in effect unless that court overturns it. Meanwhile, Judge Cooke still has to rule on whether the overall law is constitutional.
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Author:Anderson, Jane
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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