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Nursing home lawsuit bill dies

One of the most controversial bills of the legislative session appeared to be doomed Tuesday, a victim of a few senators who didn't want to limit jury awards on pain and suffering for nursing home residents.

The bill would have imposed tougher standards on medical malpractice lawsuits filed against nursing homes, making them harder for attorneys to win.

It also would have capped pain and suffering damages at $250,000 for cases in which defendants agreed to arbitration and $350,000 when they did not.

The bill's defeat was a blow to Senate President Jim King, who helped craft the proposal and lobbied hard for its passage.

Bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Carlton said she failed to round up the six votes she needed on the Senate Health, Aging and Long-Term Care committee and asked members not to consider her bill this year.

"It was very difficult to reach a consensus," said Carlton, R-Osprey.

The bill needed to pass Tuesday's committee meeting before it could advance to other committees. King dismissed the idea that a similar House bill could have a chance in the Senate.

"Short of saying, "I insist you vote for this bill,' I did everything I could," said King, R-Jacksonville.

Nursing home owners want relief from skyrocketing liability insurance premiums. They say a law passed two years ago to curb lawsuits didn't go far enough.

Trial lawyers and some elder advocates say the 2001 law has not had enough time to work and that this year's proposed bill leaves nursing home residents unprotected. The two sides have fought for every inch of turf until Tuesday, when the bill died a spectacular death.

The Senate committee didn't even introduce the three-bill package for discussion, despite weeks of work and testimony taken by a special Senate select committee King appointed to study the issue.

"This is what you call a world-class butt-whipping," said Mac Stipanovich, a lobbyist for the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group that represents hundreds of for-profit and not-for-profit nursing homes.

"'It's a victory for the trial lawyers," Stipanovich said.

It could also signal trouble for other bills intended to curb medical malpractice insurance premium hikes, which have forced some doctors and hospitals to pack up and close doors. Some of those bills have similar caps on pain and suffering jury awards.

Carlton, the bill sponsor, said she tried unsuccessfully to get both sides to agree on a bill.

In addition to opposing the lawsuit caps, Carlton said committee members thought state data on the number of lawsuits against nursing homes was unreliable. After showing a drop in lawsuits following the 2001 legislation, the Agency for Health Care Administration recently revised its numbers and increased its count of lawsuits, a move that had trial lawyers crying foul.

"That was really bothersome to some of the committee members," Carlton said.

There's still a possibility that another version of the bill, such as one drafted in the House, could come up in the Senate.

But King said Senate rules require that even a House bill have an airing in a Senate committee before the entire Senate can vote on it. There, it would likely suffer the same fate, he noted.

Despite trial lawyers' successful attempts in recent years to get sympathetic lawmakers elected, King attributed the bill's defeat to intensive lobbying by the AARP and the Senate's aversion to jury award caps.

The AARP packed Tuesday's committee room with scores of members, all clad in light blue T-shirts. The organization told King it did not want its members becoming the "guinea pigs" for litigation caps.

Still, the defeat had some speculating on the health of King's presidency.

"I'm sad for the president," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represents a group of for-profit nursing home chains called the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care. "I think the Senate president is a gentleman and in this process that sometimes doesn't have its rewards," Ballard said.

But King insisted the bill's death was a statement on his leadership style, not strength. King said he refuses to strong-arm senators, even if it means a defeat on an initiative he supports.

"I probably could have had the votes. I know I could have because the group told me they would vote for it if I told them to," King said.

"I'm hopeful that this Senate is appreciative that, unlike other Senate presidents, I give them free choice," King said.

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