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    Nursing home task force backs down

    The panel did not vote on a recommendation for how to reform the industry.

    ©Associated Press

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000

    A task force on the state's troubled nursing home industry backed away Monday from making recommendations aimed at keeping the industry viable, including limiting lawsuit liability.

    Rather than voting on a recommendation to the Legislature, the 19-member panel instead elected to send an information packet with several ideas about how to reform the industry. The panel had its final meeting Monday in Jacksonville.

    The recommendations that had been under consideration included beefing up nursing home regulations.

    But the suggestion that created the most discussion was one to set a $350,000 cap on most jury awards for pain and suffering when a facility is sued and to limit how much lawyers can make off abuse and neglect cases.

    Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, chairman of the task force, spoke strongly in favor of including some lawsuit reform in the final proposal.

    The caps were opposed by panelist Ken Connor, a trial lawyer representing families of nursing home neglect victims, who called the caps "ridiculous."

    "They're outrageous," Connor said. "The amount of damages isn't the problem. The problem is we have a crisis of care in Florida and the industry is in denial about it."

    The panel was created to help lawmakers solve the state's nursing home crisis. One in four Florida nursing home beds is operated by a company in bankruptcy.

    Brogan said he and Gov. Jeb Bush will not be satisfied until the liability issue is addressed.

    "We believe that some sort of (lawsuit) reform is essential," Brogan said.

    The group's report was written by staff at the University of South Florida's Policy Exchange Center on Aging, under the guidance of task force director Larry Polivka.

    He said the report called for strengthening nursing home regulations, but not without significant lawsuit reform.

    Polivka said that as long as lawsuit reform wasn't addressed, another top issue -- creating more choice for the elderly in how they are cared for -- wouldn't be addressed.

    By the year 2010, Florida will have to support 400,000 people who need help getting through the day, the task force found. Unless the state finds ways to divert them from expensive nursing homes, the state's long-term care bill will rise by $3-billion.

    The draft recommendations released last week included cutting back on new nursing home construction, beefing up spending for community-based and at-home programs and experimenting with new HMOs that would provide nursing care, hospital care and at-home care for one set price.

    In a major departure from past policy, the recommendations would also require statewide minimum staffing levels for nursing homes and would increase Medicaid reimbursement to pay for them.

    Advocates have long focused on adequate staffing as the key to good nursing home care. These days, nursing home residents are much sicker than residents were two and three decades ago. Training and staff expertise have not kept pace with this development, the report says.

    Task force member Larry Sherberg, a nursing home owner, warned the members against over-regulating the industry.

    It's not that the industry is opposed to quality, Sherberg said, but that homes would be going out of business because of the financial crisis faced by the operators.

    But Connor accused the industry of using the lawsuits as an excuse to avoid doing a better job of taking care of the elderly.

    "Florida is the worst of the worst, and until we insist on reforms that will ensure quality and strengthen the hands of the regulators, these problems are going to exist," Connor said.

    Ed Towey, spokesman for the Florida Health Care Association representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said the panel's decision not to vote on the recommendations was a disappointment.

    "It is now guaranteed for certain that things will get worse before they get better," Towey said.

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