Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nursing facility lawsuit bill lands in Senate

Extendicare's exit could minimize impact locally
By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer 
State Republicans are trying to reduce the number of “frivolous” lawsuits against nursing homes. They want panels to review all complaints before they reach the court system.

Bills like this have failed in years past. It’s one of the reasons Extendicare Health Services Inc., a company that owns two local nursing homes, shed management responsibilities last year for all 21 of its facilities in Kentucky.

Without Extendicare around, the volume of local nursing-home lawsuits appears to be shrinking.

And in recent years, nearly all the local cases that have been closed were dismissed via settlements, not by judges declaring them unfounded. This may suggest the bill would affect Christian County minimally.

Regardless, the bill passed the Kentucky Senate by a 23-12 vote on Wednesday. It may have a harder time getting through a House committee early next month.

Senate Bill 9 would create medical review panels to hear complaints against long-term care facilities. Panels would consist of three physicians and an attorney moderator.

Every time someone wanted to sue a facility, each side would pick a doctor for the panel, and the doctors would agree on a third panelist. They would vote on whether the suit had enough merit to go to court.

Wednesday’s vote was split down party lines.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he expects to review the bill in about two weeks. He joked about its prospects of clearing his committee.

“I can’t make any predictions about the bill this time, but I’ve called in three priests to have the last rites ready,” he said in a phone interview.

A similar bill died in his committee last year, and though he hasn’t examined this one closely, he doesn’t see how patients could benefit from this kind of measure.

If nursing homes received this new layer of protection, hospitals and daycares would want it too, he said.

The Southern Pennyrile has no representatives on the Health and Welfare committee.

Rep. Myron Dossett, R-Pembroke, hasn’t done enough research yet to decide how he’ll vote if the bill reaches the House floor. The New Era could not reach Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, in time to comment for this story.

When Extendicare announced last spring it was transferring management of all its Kentucky facilities to a Texas company, it cited Kentucky’s “worsening litigation environment” and said tort reform seemed unlikely here.

However, no other local nursing homes generated nearly as many lawsuits as Pembroke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center when Extendicare operated it. Of 19 nursing-home lawsuits filed in Christian County since January 2008, 12 are against Extendicare, according to court records. Of 11 ongoing lawsuits, 10 are against Extendicare.

The Pembroke Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center is now called Christian Heights Nursing and Rehab. Becky Colon, the current administrator, doesn’t know much about lawsuits involving her predecessors. But she said review panels wouldn’t inhibit families from pursuing “legitimate lawsuits.”

“I really believe the bill will allow that,” she said. “That’s what the bill is there for — just to weed out the ones that are clogging up the system.”

Bernie Vonderheide, director of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, believes most of these “frivolous” lawsuits would cease if the state would impose minimum staffing requirements. But he believes nursing home companies have suppressed such measures with expensive lobbying.

He just hopes the bill will die in Burch’s committee.

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