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    Insurance may boost nursing home cost

    Skyrocketing insurance at such facilities prompts some community leaders to join officials at the Palms of Largo in lobbying for limits on lawsuits.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


    LARGO -- Last year, the Palms of Largo paid $144,584 in liability insurance for its assisted-living facilities.

    This year, the sprawling complex, just north of East Bay Drive near Lake Avenue, will have to fork over $1,675,600 in liability insurance.

    The staggering 1,000 percent increase scares people like James Wagner.

    Wagner's wife, Jeanne, who has Parkinson's disease, was placed inside a nursing facility at the Palms about two years ago. Like many with loved ones who are being cared for at the Palms, Wagner fears the center will raise its rates to make up for the insurance increase.

    "How high can you go?" wondered Wagner, 72. "I don't know. I worry about it."

    Palms officials, as well as some community leaders, are similarly concerned. On Monday, a top company official and the president of Largo's chamber of commerce met with an aide to state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, to seek legislation that would put a cap on lawsuits against nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

    The meeting was part of a lobbying campaign by the Palms, one of Largo's largest employers, to get area lawmakers to persuade their colleagues to pass tort reform in the coming legislative session. The Palms also plans to rent a bus to take 46 employees and resident family members to Tallahassee for a statewide march next month.

    Liability premiums have jumped 500 to 1,000 percent in one year for many assisted-living facilities, according to the Florida Health Care Association.

    "If this continues in our field, more and more health care organizations are going to go out of business," said Donna Weimer, regional director of the Palms.

    The Palms of Largo has 700 employees who serve 1,661 people.

    "The health care industry is a large employer in Largo," said Marc Mansfield, president of the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce. "We just want to make sure that they will be able to do business in Pinellas County and in Florida."

    Weimer and other health care officials say higher insurance rates are a result of the rising number of lawsuits filed against nursing homes in the state.

    Gov. Jeb Bush said he supports tort reform in a visit to Dunedin last month. He cited figures that show claims against Florida nursing homes are 21/2 times greater than in the other 49 states and the average cost of liability per nursing home bed in Florida is eight times the national average.

    Many private attorneys, however, say tort reform is not the answer. They argue that by pushing nursing homes to hire more qualified employees, the number of lawsuits will decline and insurance premiums will drop.

    "This is a continuing problem of bad care," said Frank Petosa, a member of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers' nursing home task force.

    He also thinks the state bears some of the blame. Petosa pointed out that between 1995 and 2000, the state's Agency for Health Care Administration collected just 27 percent of the $12.1-million levied in fines against negligent nursing homes.

    "This is an example of our public system not working properly," he said.

    Unfortunately, he said, assisted-living facilities and continuing care retirement communities are suffering financially for the misdeeds of some inadequately operated nursing homes.

    "The problem is, they are all being lumped in the same category," Petosa said.

    Shirley Long, 68, whose mother and husband are in the Palms, is not swayed by such arguments. Long, whose husband was an attorney, think many of the lawsuits are "frivolous."

    "I don't think that's fair" to places like the Palms of Largo, said Long.

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