Bill to shield nursing homes from lawsuits clears Senate along party lines; not looking healthy in House despite TV, radio ads

Last week the state Senate approved on party lines a bill that would make lawsuits against nursing homes go through a review panel first. Republicans supported the bill and Democrats voted against it in a 23-12 vote that marked the clearest partisan split in the Senate in this year’s legislative session.

Senate Bill 9 would create medical review panels of three physicians and an attorney moderator to hear complaints against long-term care facilities and vote on whether the suit had enough merit to go to court.  The bill’s sponsor, Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Julie Denton, R-Louisville, declind to answer an opposign senator’s questions about the bill. She said in introducing it that the panel would be advisory but its opinion would be admissible in court and would curb such lawsuits, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Bills like this have failed in years past and could have diverse implications for Kentucky communities and nursing homes. At least one Kentucky newspaper looked around and found that lawsuits are one reason Extendicare Health Services Inc. shed management responsibilities last year for all 21 of its facilities in Kentucky, reports Nick Tabor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville.

Without Extendicare management in Western Kentucky, the volume of nursing-home lawsuits in the region appears to be shrinking, Tabor reports. In recent years, nearly all the Christian County cases that have been closed were dismissed through settlements, not by judges declaring them unfounded. This suggests the bill would minimally affect the county, writes Tabor. Other Kentucky communities may be affected differently; judges differ from circuit to circuit.

Although the bill passed the Senate, it appears to be on its deathbed in the House. Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, joked about its prospects to Tabor: “I can’t make any predictions about the bill this time, but I’ve called in three priests to have the last rites ready.” If nursing homes received this new layer of protection, he said, hospitals and day-care centers would want it too.

A similar bill died in Burch’s committee last year; this version is being supported by television and radio commercials urging viewers and listeners to call their legislators in support. 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.

Bernie Vonderheide, director of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, said most so-called “frivolous” lawsuits would cease if the state imposed minimum staffing requirements on nursing homes, his group’s main legislative goal. (Read more)

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