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Nursing home showdown begins

On one side are the nursing home operators, who want relief from skyrocketing insurance premiums.

On the other are trial lawyers and the AARP, who contend the proposed changes would leave nursing home patients unprotected.

The two sides, who have fought for years, will battle publicly for the first time this session at today's meeting of the Senate Health, Aging and Long Term Care Committee.

The issue is whether lawsuits against nursing homes should be subjected to the same, stricter standards as those imposed against hospitals. Nursing home operators say yes; trial attorneys and the AARP say no.

As with doctors and hospitals, nursing homes have struggled in recent years to obtain insurance. Those who have secured insurance have seen their premiums rise dramatically. Legislation passed two years ago limiting lawsuits did not go far enough, nursing home owners say, while lawyers argue the law hasn't had enough time to work.

The bill before the Senate committee today would cap pain and suffering damages in many cases to $250,000 and define as medical treatment many of the activities performed by nonlicensed nursing assistants. Lawsuits involving such medical treatment would be subject to stricter standards than simple negligence, making them harder for plaintiffs to win.

"Failing to ensure that someone has water in their pitcher is considered medical treatment," said Frank Petosa, who heads up the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers' nursing home task force.

The bill also would put the state first in line to collect from jury awards the cost of medical services paid by Medicaid that the resident received as a result of the injury he or she received in the home.

"It leaves nothing left for the resident," Petosa said.

The bill could run into trouble in the Senate. Key senators on the committee have said capping pain and suffering damages from nursing home residents means taking away their chances for any award because most residents would qualify for little, if any, economic damages.

"Most things that are done in a nursing home are not medical," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Seniors on limited incomes need more protection than the cap would offer, he added.

The AARP agrees. Scores of AARP members in their light-blue T-shirts are once again part of the landscape at the Capitol.

"The bottom line for us is it's really a bad bill," said Lyn Bodiford, AARP Florida's state affairs coordinator.

But nursing home interests argue that they need insurance now and the only way to persuade insurance companies to come back to Florida is to reduce nursing homes' risk.

Brian Ballard, who represents a group of nursing home residents called the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, said it won't be easy to pass the bill. "I think we have the votes in the committee to pass the bill," he said, "but this is a long way from the (Senate) floor."

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.