AARP blasts bill seeking to protect nursing homes from coronavirus lawsuits

The group argues the legislation would deprive families of their rights and erode consumer confidence in long-term care.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg has introduced a bill that would give long-term care facilities in Florida immunity from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg has introduced a bill that would give long-term care facilities in Florida immunity from lawsuits related to COVID-19. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 8, 2021|Updated Feb. 9, 2021

AARP Florida is pressing members of the Legislature to oppose Senate Bill 74, a measure filed last week that would grant immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits to health care providers, including nursing homes, hospitals and doctors.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would “further erode the rights of older Floridians to seek redress for negligence and abuses endured in these facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP in a news release.

The group focused its opposition on how the bill might affect nursing homes. Johnson referenced a recent Tampa Bay Times in-depth story, Death at Freedom Square, as an example of “shameful atrocities occurring in Senator Brandes’ own district.”

“Disregard for Florida’s nursing home residents and their loved ones is appalling,” Johnson said. “At a time when consumer confidence in Florida’s long-term care system is at an all-time low, lawmakers would make things worse by letting nursing homes off the hook.”

He called the COVID-19 death toll in long-term facilities “a national disgrace,” saying more than 9,000 residents have died thus far without family members at their side.

“In numerous cases, facilities may have contributed to those deaths and other harms by their lack of care or abuse,” Johnson said. “Now the Florida Legislature would strip from grieving families the right to seek justice for deceased and injured loved ones who may have been hurt or killed by negligent care.”

Brandes said in an interview that he spoke with AARP leadership Monday.

“Generally, their position is they’re fine with the provisions we have for hospitals and doctors, but their concern is with nursing homes,” he said.

He explained that many nursing homes don’t have insurance that covers pandemics and would go bankrupt in a settled-suit model, he said.

“What I expressed to them is you may get one of these suits settled, but by that time if they get 10 of them, they’re just going to file bankruptcy and your folks get nothing.” Brandes said.

Brandes said he plans to continue talking to AARP about their concerns.

Meanwhile, health care industry officials have put their support behind the bill. One, the Florida Health Care Association, the industry group representing Florida nursing homes, praised the legislation in a news release last week, saying that it would allow nursing homes to recover from the pandemic and continue to care for Florida’s senior population.

“Our long-term care heroes are working tirelessly to care for their residents, who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and they deserve our support,” Emmett Reed, the association’s executive director, said in the release. “Our health care heroes should be celebrated for the life-saving decisions they continue to make to protect our loved ones, not worried about the threat of lawsuits for delivering care during a crisis they did not create.”

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The text of the bill argues in part that hospitals and other health care facilities have struggled to acquire personal protective equipment, and that “the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult or impossible for health care providers to maintain ideal levels of staffing.”

It refers to the measure as “an overpowering public necessity ... that will deter unfounded lawsuits against health care providers based on COVID-19-related claims, while allowing meritorious claims to proceed.”

Johnson said AARP Florida wants the state to look to new forms of long-term care.

“We will never stop fighting for our members and all Floridians who use long-term care services,” Johnson said. “They deserve better, and this legislation is a shameful step backwards.”

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