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    A Times Editorial

    Nursing home challenge

    A state task force ought to look beyond simplistic approaches to nursing home reform and shape a serious and comprehensive solution, not a lobbyist-driven one.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000

    Why are so many Florida nursing homes going bankrupt? And what should the state do about it?

    Those questions -- at the heart of the ongoing work of the state's Task Force on the Availability and Affordability of Long-Term Care -- are enormously complex, though you would hardly know it from the testimony the panel has received thus far.

    Last week in Tallahassee, as elsewhere, most witnesses offered up predictably simplistic and polarized views. Industry representatives, angry over lawsuits, urged the panel to "get the trial lawyers out of the nursing homes." Lawyers merely returned fire, conceding no ground of their own.

    Too few on either side echoed the elders advocate who, earlier this fall in Tampa, cautioned the panel: "This is a complex issue, and it can't be solved by one solution."

    Floridians are expecting task-force members to appreciate and weigh those complexities, even if the vested parties won't. Lawmakers last session were wise to want answers before rushing into a "reform" that might prove worse than the problem.

    The panel they created, headed by Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, should take care to consider all aspects of the problem and come back with legislation that offers a serious and comprehensive solution, not a lobbyist-driven agenda.

    Recent figures from the state Department of Insurance shed light on the stresses faced by nursing homes, but they pinpoint neither causes nor solutions. They confirm that the number of insurers actively writing policies has shrunk to a handful, while liability claims have indeed grown in frequency and size. But they also show that all the insurers who recently stopped providing coverage did so as part of a national strategy, not merely in Florida -- contradicting industry claims that the state's lawsuit-friendly laws are what's driving insurers away.

    Those textured findings should make task-force members especially wary of the industry's main proposal: to make it harder for elders to sue by subjecting their claims to medical-malpractice rules.

    That simplistic, heavy-handed "solution" would do more than cap the damages residents could recover if they are abused or neglected. By inserting new waiting periods, it would also drag out lawsuits and make it more likely that residents would die in the interim, leaving adult children with no legal recourse and even the worst homes with little accountability.

    Less drastic changes could give relief to the majority of homes that care responsibly for their residents without undermining the right of injured elders to recover from those that do not.

    A new "loser pays attorneys' fees" rule could help discourage frivolous suits as well as unfounded defenses, and the nursing-home law could be amended to spell out the governing standard.

    Trial lawyers who refuse to entertain any conceivable change are as extreme as the industry lobbyists they fight.

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