A bill filed in the Florida House this week would allow law enforcement agencies to help hospitals identify unidentified patients and empower social workers to make decisions about patients’ continued care.
HB 1021, which Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin of Miami-Dade County filed Monday, would add language to Florida Statute clearing the way for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and local police agencies to use available biometric tools to identify “otherwise unidentifiable” patients.
Such tools include fingerprints, palm prints and facial images.
“Upon request by the hospital, the Department of Law Enforcement or another law enforcement agency shall provide the hospital with the available last known name, address, telephone number, or otherwise identifying information of such patient to notify the patient’s next of kin,” the bill said.
Hospitals in Florida now run into legal roadblocks when trying to determine who some of their patients are. In Miami-Dade County alone, there are more than 300 cases of unidentified bodies awaiting identification, some murdered, some who died of natural causes.
That issue has been exacerbated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. South Floridians saw mobile morgues arrive in 2020 to handle a 15.5% increase in deaths because of the virus across the state. Those mobile morgues returned to Central Florida during the virus’ last peak in August.
For those admitted to health care facilities without ID, hospitals staff are limited in what they can do to identify them. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, meant to safeguard people’s private medical information, deters hospitals from releasing details about unidentified patients to people seeking loved ones.
One recourse for people looking for missing family members or friends is the FDLE’s Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearinghouse, which provides analytical services and aids the public in finding missing people. It’s responsible for issuing all AMBER, Silver and Missing Child alerts, among other things.
Other related FDLE resources include state and national missing and unidentified persons databases, fingerprint identification services, forensic DNA training and forensic art assistance.
Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur of Seminole County last month filed SB 900, which could help to further rectify the issue by requiring hospitals to maintain publicly available directories of unidentified patients. The directory would include information about patient location, injury type, general condition and a list of certain distinguishing physical characteristics, including height, weight, gender, race, hair, eye color and any facial hair, scars and tattoos.
Since Nov. 30, SB 900 has awaited hearings before the Health Policy Committee, Rules Committee and the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. None have taken up the bill.
Current state law provides that a licensed clinical social worker or a social worker who has graduated from a court-approved guardianship program may make end-of-life decisions for an incapacitated or developmentally disabled person if that person has no advance directive — a legal document detailing someone’s end-of-life-care decisions — or a designated surrogate to make end-of-life decisions for them.
Fernandez-Barquin’s bill would also grant those social workers the added authority to decide which nursing home, long-term care facility or hospice facility such patients would be assigned after hospitals discharge them.
Social workers would also be able to make decisions about whether to transfer a patient from one facility to another and apply for any available public or private patient benefits.
Florida Politics contacted Fernandez-Barquin and Brodeur for comment and will update this story if they respond.