The Legislatures battle over how much protection to give nursing homes against lawsuits landed Thursday in the Florida Senate, which haggled for hours over a plan to make it harder to sue nursing-home operators whose employees abuse or neglect residents.
Trial lawyers and other critics of the bill, which the Senate tentatively approved, say the measure ends important protections for nursing-home residents. Representatives of the industry, pleased by Thursdays action, say they need a shield from an onslaught of legal claims.
The Senate spent nearly three hours hammering out dozens of substantial changes to the 134-page bill, preparing for a final Senate vote, possibly today. A House version of the legislation still hasnt come to a full vote, but may be heard either today or Saturday.
Debate in the Senate was repeatedly delayed as senators negotiated key parts of the bill in private both inside the Senate chamber and in the Capitol rotunda where dozens of lobbyists for trial lawyers and the long-term-care industry gathered.
Much of the fight involved setting a date for when limits should apply for punitive damage awards -- payments that juries can assess to punish nursing homes for bad behavior.
An agreement adopted by the Senate provides a six-month grace period before the limits take effect.
Steve Vancore, a representative of Wilkes and McHugh law firm, said an Oct. 5 deadline isnt enough time for his firm to finish research on the dozens of cases it is already working on.
"The people who have already been injured will have different rules applied to them," said Vancore. "It is grossly unfair to those clients who cant get their cases filed in time."
John Overton, president of the Florida Health Care Association, was pleased with the Senates action, calling it a "good first step" and said the deadlines are fair. But he questioned whether the legislation goes far enough to reduce nursing-home liability and lawsuit woes.
The Senate took out of the bill a provision that would have allowed nursing-home residents and their families to install electronic monitoring devices -- sometimes known as "granny cams" in the homes. As a compromise, the Senate bill requires the granny-cam issue to be studied for a year.
The bill puts about $50 million into nursing-home improvements, but Senate leaders have said they hope to increase that to at least $70 million. The Senate bill sets a 2.3 hour minimum amount of care for each resident each day from nursing assistants. It would gradually raise the standard to 2.9 hours by 2005.
"Since its our No. 1 priority, were not going to pass a bill thats a sham and is not appropriately funded," said Senate President John McKay.
The sponsor of the bill said more money is needed.
"If we dont get the money for quality and staffing, this is all for naught," said state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.
Mark Hollis can be reached at or 850-224-6214.