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    Senate approves nursing home bill

    The compromise measure, which increases staffing and limits lawsuits, passes 33-5.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- State senators Friday approved a nursing home package intended to boost staffing, limit lawsuits and lure insurers back to Florida.

    Senators approved the bill 33-5, and sent it to the House, where Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, has said he wants to improve and adopt the Senate bill instead of taking up the House version.

    State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican and the chief architect of the bill, urged her colleagues to approve the measure. Not everyone was happy with the bill, but most agreed it was the best compromise possible this year.

    "It's probably not the best product, but it's a fair product," said state Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, a lawyer who had worked closely with the trial attorneys who wanted to preserve their clients' rights.

    Nursing home industry executives have lobbied the Legislature in recent years for relief from the lawsuits they say have driven their insurance premiums out of reach. They accuse trial attorneys of siphoning money that should go toward caring for the elderly.

    Trial attorneys point out that a state study found none of the lawsuits it looked at were frivolous. They say if care were improved, the lawsuits would disappear.

    Campbell said all parties, including Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, compromised on some element of the bill. For example, Campbell said he didn't want to cap punitive damages for the same companies that have been fined for defrauding the federal government.

    But the caps are there for most lawsuits, and trial lawyers have complained that the bill, in effect, makes them retroactive. They say they hope to change that when the House and Senate work out differences in their bills. Nursing home representatives say the caps and retroactive provisions make the measure fair.

    In addition to lawsuit limits, the Senate bill would raise the minimum staffing levels from 1.7 hours of nursing aide care per resident per day to 2.9 hours, phased in over five years. That works out to between five and seven residents per nursing assistant on the day shift, according to industry and union representatives.

    Brown-Waite said the requirements are accounted for in the Senate's proposed budget.

    The bill also would require nursing homes to improve staff training and develop risk management programs designed to limit the incidents that lead to lawsuits, as well as beef up state regulation of the nursing homes and increase alternatives to nursing home care, Brown-Waite said.

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