Nursing home debate revving up

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 9:18 p.m.

Tallahassee - As another year begins, the annual debate over nursing home lawsuits is under way in the state capital.

Lawmakers passed a major nursing home bill in 2001. It imposed new limits on lawsuits, while also increasing care standards for the homes, including significantly raising the amount of time aides and nurses must spend with the elderly residents.

But lawmakers, the nursing home industry, trial lawyers and patient advocates continue to debate the effectiveness of that legislation. A joint House-Senate committee is reviewing the latest nursing home data, as lawmakers head to their annual 60-day session, which begins March 2.

While there remain widely divergent views on the problem with no ready solutions in sight, the state's largest senior lobby, the AARP, will play a key role in any legislation that emerges from the session.

Historically, the AARP has resisted efforts to restrict the right of nursing home patients to sue the facilities.

But AARP representatives say they remain troubled by the fact that many homes have minimal insurance coverage and that some homes, with bad operating records, continue to exist.

In that light, Lyn Bodiford, an AARP lobbyist, said her group is talking with the state, the nursing home industry, trial lawyers and other advocates about possible solutions. "There are way too many facilities and a growing number of facilities that have virtually no insurance,'' she said. The minimal insurance coverage translates to an effective lawsuit cap, if a nursing home resident sues for damages, Bodiford said.

The other aim for the senior lobbying group, which claims 2.6 million members in Florida, is improving the state's ability to shut down homes with chronic problems.

But resolving the insurance and regulatory issues will not be easy. "It's easier to figure out the problems, than the solutions,'' Bodiford said.

And any solution that seeks to limit lawsuit claims will meet opposition from another powerful lobby, the trial lawyers.

Steven Vancore, a spokesman for the Wilkes & McHugh law firm, said the lawyers believe the 2001 nursing home law is working, citing statistics from state regulators that show a decline in lawsuits being filed coupled with increases in quality indicators for the homes.

The 2001 law, which didn't become fully effective until 2003, needs more time to work and to allow the insurance market to revive, Vancore said.

``There is no reason on God's green earth to do anything except to ensure that the quality of care continues to go the way it's going,'' he said.

Fate of list

Florida lawmakers meeting this coming week in Tallahassee will spend some time discussing what, if anything, should be done about Florida's 10-year-old ``Do Not Call'' list that is maintained by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The fate of the program is up in the air since the creation this past year of a federal ``Do-Not-Call'' list, which has come under legal attack from groups asserting that it is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

Florida's program has about 171,000 people who have paid a fee in order to be placed on the state list. That contrasts with 3.5 million Floridians who have signed up for free to be placed on the federal list.

A report put together last month by the Senate Commerce, Economic Opportunities and Consumer Services points out that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services actually makes a profit from the ``Do Not Call'' list.

This past year, the state took in $1.56 million that came in the form of registration fees, the purchase of the list by telemarketers, and fines against companies that did not abide by the list. Of that total, more than $664,000 was profit and was used for other programs. The Senate staff report speculates that this profit would likely diminish if the federal program survives legal challenges.

But the report suggests that lawmakers may want to wait a year and keep the state list intact until legal issues surrounding the federal list are resolved.

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