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    Time runs out in debate on nursing home damages cap

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- One by one, senators left the dais to huddle with lobbyists in corners and hallways.

    The lobbyists paced and watched the clock, and one even slipped a senator a piece of paper -- a predicted vote count, he said later.

    But time ran out Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Judiciary could vote on an amendment that would cap punitive damages in lawsuits against nursing homes.

    It was consumed in part by testimony from relatives of nursing home residents and a trial lawyer whose normal rhythm of speech had been slowed for the occasion.

    "I don't know who claims victory today," said Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, who offered the last-minute amendment restricting punitive damages. The amendment likely would have changed again before the bill hit the Senate floor, he said.

    "Most people know this is just a push to get the sides back together," Horne said.

    Trial lawyers, nursing home operators and elder advocates, led by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, have endured marathon negotiating sessions the last two weeks. According to those involved, the parties had agreed on all issues but one: limits on punitive damages.

    Negotiations broke down when the for-profit and out-of-state nursing homes "upped the ante," according to an AARP representative.

    But Kym Spell, a spokeswoman for the industry group Florida Health Care Association, disagreed.

    "It has been extremely difficult and passionate negotiations," Spell said. And if the crisis isn't resolved, lawsuit-induced insurance hikes will put nursing homes out of business, she said.

    "We're not going to have to worry about doing this next year because we're not going to be here."

    Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who led Gov. Jeb Bush's task force on nursing home care, apparently tried to break the impasse. Brogan said he'd been watching the Senate hearing on television when he decided to attend.

    "This is one of my issues," was all Brogan said when asked if he'd been called out to provide reinforcements.

    A few quiet conversations later, and lobbyists for the nursing home industry smiled. They said little, only that Brogan had smoothed things over. Brogan left the hearing and didn't return a call seeking details of his actions.

    But not even Brogan could beat the clock. Lobbyists for both sides began pacing when it was announced there were just 29 minutes left in the hearing.

    Nursing home advocates and their lobbyists feverishly hoped to pass the damages amendment before time ran out, while trial attorneys and others opposed to caps ate up time with their testimony.

    "I did try to slow down," attorney Frank Petosa acknowledged after the hearing.

    Finally, time was up. The committee will meet again next week.

    Committee members did pass two significant amendments Wednesday: One would create a state insurance pool for nursing homes. The other would put a moratorium on state approval of new nursing homes until 2006.

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