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    Bill bars meetings about unions

    A state Senate committee passes a measure that prohibits such meetings on the Medicaid dime at nursing homes.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Nursing assistant Pearl Godden was helping a resident shower last month when she got the call from the nursing home's administration: Report to the training room for an informational meeting.

    What Godden heard was how much of her paycheck union dues would eat up and how ineffective unions are.

    "It was just to discourage us against a union," said Godden, a certified nursing assistant at Delta Health Care of Tampa.

    But a bill approved Wednesday by the state Senate Health, Aging and Long-Term Care Committee would prohibit nursing homes from using Medicaid dollars to finance any meetings -- pro or con -- on union activity. That means nursing home assistants, whose wages are paid largely through state Medicaid reimbursements, couldn't attend their own or management's meetings about unions while on the clock.

    "(Union activity) should not be done on company time when the company is the state of Florida," said Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, the measure's sponsor. Scores of certified nursing home assistants turned out Wednesday to support the bill, which they said protects residents.

    The nursing home industry group supports the concept but thinks the bill is too broad, said Bob Asztalos, director of legislative affairs for the Florida Health Care Association. He said nursing homes could break the law if an employee asked questions about a union during a regular staff meeting.

    But Dawson said she got a commitment from the association not to fight or stall the bill. The House companion bill hasn't been heard in committee yet.

    In exchange, Dawson agreed to cut language out of the bill that would allow the Attorney General's Office or any other taxpayer to sue for damages and to stop on-the-clock union activity.

    "We Kum Ba Yah'ed with the (nursing home) industry," Dawson said.

    Meanwhile, hundreds of caregivers, long-term-care residents and their relatives gathered outside the Capitol on Wednesday to demand that the Legislature protect nursing homes by limiting lawsuits against them.

    Florida Health Care Association president John Overton criticized lawyers who file the lawsuits and the AARP, which on Wednesday released a survey indicating that a majority of its members support state-mandated improvements in nursing homes without limiting lawsuits.

    "I was a member of the AARP but not anymore," Overton said.

    Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan also spoke at the rally, echoing Gov. Jeb Bush's plans to improve care in the elder care system in part by adding more than $50-million toward alternatives to nursing homes care.

    That wasn't enough to satisfy Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin, who held his own news conference after the rally to criticize Brogan's appearance and what he called a lack of leadership by Bush.

    "What we need now from Gov. Bush is real leadership, not more pep rallies and PR stunts," said Rossin, of West Palm Beach. He acknowledged that more could have been done by the Democrats when they were in power but added that the nursing home issue had only recently become a crisis.

    A Bush spokeswoman responded by saying Bush has committed millions of dollars more to elder care than his predecessor and that Brogan has devoted his time by serving as chairman of a state task force.

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