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House committee dilutes nursing home reform bill

The changes leave the sponsor of the proposal unsure whether she will vote for the legislation.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


The changes leave the sponsor of the proposal unsure whether she will vote for the legislation.

TALLAHASSEE -- Members of the Florida House will get their first look this week at a nursing home reform package -- but even the measure's sponsor has qualms about it.

The House Fiscal Responsibility Council sent the measure to the floor Tuesday, but not before undoing what the House Council for Healthy Communities had done just the day before.

And it's the changes made Tuesday -- such as one that chipped away at higher staff level requirements -- that make Rep. Carole Green, R-Fort Myers, the bill's sponsor, wonder if she'll support her own bill.

Green added that she plans to try to add the staffing amendments.

The House bill originally would have boosted Florida's required staffing to 2.9 hours of nursing assistant care per resident per day. A companion Senate bill would move Florida to that level over five years. But the Fiscal Responsibility Council scaled that down to 2.6 hours, saying there simply wasn't enough money for the higher level of care.

The Senate measure will cost about $46-million; the House bill, about $130-million. Both chambers are expected to take up their bills this week.

The council's action Tuesday spurred Dunnellon Republican Rep. Nancy Argenziano, a key lawmaker in the issue and chairwoman of the healthy communities council, to ask: "Are you completely taking out what my council did yesterday?"

The answer, Argenziano was told, was yes.

Some advocates for nursing home residents say the bill, in its current form, simply restricts lawsuits that can be filed against homes without adding stricter quality-of-care requirements. And trial attorneys said they agreed to many of those changes only because they'd been told that the care requirements would be part of the package.

"We have given up, by far, the most," said Lance Block, president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Added Barbara Hengstebeck from the Coalition to Protect America's Elders: "It appears to me what you've done today is take away all the help we thought we were going to get . . . and what we've got left is tort reform."

But representatives of nursing home facilities, who say they've been crushed by lawsuits, say Tuesday's action by the House Fiscal Responsibility Council simply makes the measure fair.

"I think we've reached that balance of care," said Doug Mannheimer, a lobbyist with the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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