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    Elder care bill makes headway in Senate

    A nursing home trade group cheers the proposal, but trial attorneys criticize it.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Nursing home executives were all smiles Thursday when state senators gave tentative approval to a bill designed to improve quality and reduce lawsuits in the elder care industry.

    But trial attorneys reacted angrily and vowed to fight to make the bill fair for clients.

    Under the bill, any lawsuit filed after May 15 would fall under the new rules, which restrict lawsuits and the damages that juries can award. Plaintiffs would have until Oct. 5 to file for punitive damages.

    "This bill is a good bill for everyone," said state Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac.

    But Steve Vancore, a spokesman for nursing home lawsuit pioneers Wilkes & McHugh, said those deadlines would have the practical effect of making the new rules retroactive to cases his firm has worked on for months but can't file by the deadlines.

    "You may not know you have punitive damages until six, seven, 10 months later," Vancore said.

    "These cases take a long time to work up," he added. Although he thinks the Senate included some important quality-of-care improvements in the bill, Vancore said they don't reach the level trial attorneys said it would take to get them to agree to restrictions on lawsuits.

    "Our understanding was, we would swallow moderate tort reform to get significant quality-of-care improvements," Vancore said. But Bob Asztalos, director of legislative affairs for the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group, said he thinks the bill senators approved will help lure insurance companies back to Florida. Many nursing home operators have complained that lawsuits have driven insurance premiums through the roof, and some are going without.

    "We're real happy with what they did," Asztalos said. The Florida Health Care Association has fought to make the new rules retroactive in the House and Senate versions of the bill.

    The House bill hasn't come to a vote yet. The Senate measure will cost about $46-million; the House bill, about $130-million.

    Both the House and Senate bills require stricter oversight of nursing homes and restrict lawsuits. Both require increased staffing, though at different levels: The House bill requires 2.6 hours of nursing assistant care per resident per day. The Senate bill requires 2.9 hours, phased in over five years.

    Late Thursday, House Speaker Tom Feeney said his chamber plans to take up the Senate bill after its final approval there. "By the time we're done with the Senate product, it'll be a lot better," he said.

    - Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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