“Nursing Home Battle Lands Before Legislators”, The Associated Press (4/9/03)

Regional News

Nursing Home Battle Lands Before Legislators

The Associated Press
4/9/03 3:42 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The ad war that has been waged on TV — with lawyers portraying nursing homes as abusive and nursing homes portraying lawyers as greedy — finally arrived at the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday.

Three Senate committees held a public hearing on a package of bills to limit lawsuits against nursing homes. Both sides had been urging people to call their senators and to turn out for the hearing. It worked, with 400 people — about evenly divided between each side — overflowing the committee hearing room and filling hallways. It was the largest crowd this year for any legislative hearing. “It’s really good to see government work this way,” said Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, who moderated the public hearing.

The package, which is divided among the three Senate committees, did not receive any votes Wednesday. Committee chairmen said no votes would be taken before next week, and that it would take compromises on some of the bills before they could win committee approval.

Melissa Gavin, former state director of senior services and now a spokeswoman for the nursing home industry, told the committees that Alabama nursing homes are in a crisis. She said liability insurance rates have risen 402 percent since 2000, with the average Alabama nursing home of 116 beds now paying nearly $200,000 annually. The industry’s bills would:

  • cap noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in both death and nondeath cases at $250,000.
  • shorten the deadline for filing a lawsuit from two years after a death to two years after the alleged negligent act occurred.
  • create a complaint review board to look at cases before they go to court.
  • designate who can make decisions for a patient and provide protections to nursing homes that follow those directions.
  • create a patient’s compensation fund to which all nursing homes would
  • contribute.

It also contains a $250,000 cap on payments.

“If enacted, Alabama would treat nursing home residents worse than any other state, giving less legal protections to our most vulnerable citizens,” said Barbara Evans, executive director of Alabama Watch, a consumer group.

Ralph Cook, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice who is now secretary of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, said that capping the damages could lead to worse care in nursing homes. “Under this bill, your worst nightmare could occur,” he told the committees. The television campaigns that preceded the committees’ hearings were on the minds of many who attended.

Joanne Bunch, director of nursing at Dunn Nursing Home in Selma, said she was tired of trial lawyers’ ads that portray nursing homes as abusive and uncaring. “We do a very difficult job because we care about people who reside in Alabama nursing homes,” she said.

Birmingham lawyer David Marsh said he was hurt by nursing home ads that show a lawyer taking food off of a senior citizen’s plate. He said the ad hurts the chances of the two sides compromising. Both sides in the dispute got consumers to tell stories about good and bad experiences in nursing homes.

Mobile County Commissioner Sam Jones said he helped look after an aunt and uncle who were in a nursing home for five years. “I learned to appreciate the professionalism of those people in the nursing homes,” he said.

Brian Moody of Butler said his mother had the opposite experience. “She choked to death on her own feces,” he said.