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    Report: Nursing home suits, staffing linked

    The study was done by an economist hired by the Tampa law firm of Wilkes & McHugh.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Restricting lawsuits against nursing homes won't cure the ills facing the industry, nor will it lure insurers back to Florida, an economist warned Monday.

    Hank Fishkind, who has supported limits on lawsuits against other types of companies, said the economic, regulatory and quality-of-care issues facing the nursing home industry require a solution more comprehensive than limiting lawsuits.

    Fishkind was hired by the Tampa law firm of Wilkes & McHugh, considered a pioneer in litigation against nursing homes, and paid $10,000 for the analysis of the rising nursing home liability insurance rates.

    The economist's conclusion: Lawsuits against nursing homes are linked to staffing levels and the number of state citations against the homes.

    Those problems can be traced to the mid 1990s when the government adjusted its reimbursement rates for nursing home care, Fishkind said. He said that led to financial strain and staffing cuts, particularly in large, for-profit nursing homes.

    "I think it's unrealistic to think we are going to solve all these problems in Florida simply by manipulating tort reform," said Fishkind, a member of Gov. Jeb Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

    "Based on my study of available data," he said, "this problem is driven first and foremost by a problem in the delivery of care, and that is driving the tort climate, not the other way around."

    Fishkind supported lawsuit reform in 1999, when the Legislature passed a bill limiting lawsuits against some businesses. But he said he doesn't support it for nursing homes because they are part of a heavily regulated industry with little competition.

    Representatives of the Florida Health Care Association attacked the study. They said it did nothing to address the quality of care that is most important to nursing home residents.

    "Florida's elder care system is sinking in a quagmire of lawsuits, and Florida seniors will be better served by keeping scarce resources within the system to improve quality of care," said association spokeswoman Kym Spell.

    "We have a plan to change the status quo -- the trial lawyers profit from the status quo," she added.

    The Florida Health Care Association has spent the last week promoting its new quality care program around the state.

    Nursing homes that want to remain members of the association must sign a pledge to improve care in their facilities. Homes that refuse to adhere to the quality guidelines will not be allowed to renew their membership.

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