FRANKFORT — After a heated debate that featured graphic photos of abused nursing home patients, the state Senate approved on party lines Wednesday a bill aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits against nursing homes.
The 23 to 12 vote, with Republicans voting for the bill and Democrats voting against it, marked the largest — and most spirited — partisan split in the Senate in this year's legislative session.
The Senate vote came quickly after the Senate Health and Welfare Committee sent Senate Bill 9 to the chamber on a 7 to 4 partisan vote. The measure now goes to the Democratic-led House, where Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, predicted it will be "dead as a hammer."
The bill would set up medical review panels to hear complaints against long-term care facilities. Each panel would be made up of one attorney and three physicians. The attorney would serve as panel chairperson but would not be able to vote.
Each side represented in the case would select a panelist, with the third panelist being agreed to by the other two physicians. The panel would then offer an opinion on whether the evidence supports a complaint against the nursing home.
The bill's sponsor, Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said the panel would be advisory and its opinion would be admissible in court. She predicted this would mean fewer frivolous lawsuits.
Denton's committee initially approved SB 9 earlier this month but GOP leaders sent it back to committee Tuesday to hear testimony from opponents. On Wednesday, the committee adopted a substitute to the bill that made a few minor changes and sent it back to the full Senate.
Jones was upset when Senate GOP leaders ruled several amendments he filed to the bill out of order. They said his amendments were applied to the initial bill and the committee had adopted a substitute bill.
Jones' amendments, among other things, would have established minimum staffing requirements in nursing homes and required a substance abuse screening program for nursing home employees.
When Jones asked Denton during debate in the Senate to answer a few questions about the bill, she declined. He then tried unsuccessfully to suspend Senate rules to consider his amendments.
He said he wanted to know a variety of information, such as what kind of doctors will be on the medical review panels.
Jones, an attorney, then proceeded to hold up large photos of nursing home patients who were suffering from sores and injuries. Some senators turned their heads to avoid looking at the photos.
Jones unleashed a tirade against bad nursing homes, saying he would like to know how much money the industry has spent on lobbying for SB 9 and how much it will contribute to legislators who vote for it.
"The 28,000 people in Kentucky nursing homes won't give donations," he said.
He said legislators who say they are pro-life on the issue of abortion should be willing to "protect vulnerable people" in nursing homes.
Denton countered that the bill is needed to protect the nursing home industry from unscrupulous lawsuits. "This will weed out the bad players," she said.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, said the bill will strengthen the case of plaintiffs who have legitimate complaints against nursing homes.
The controversial debate motivated Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, to leave his chair and make a floor speech. He said the bill does not block anyone's access to filing a lawsuit and taking complaints to court.
But Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said the bill has "a lot of questions and unintended consequences."
The Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities is backing the bill. In a statement after the Senate vote, the association said the bill "is a common sense measure that protects the rights of loved ones in our facilities while helping end the culture of litigation and blame that is plaguing our industry."
AARP Kentucky opposes the bill. It has said the bill "is wrong for Kentucky and will make it harder for nursing home residents or their families to seek justice and accountability through our court system."
House Health and Welfare Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, has said he has a lot of concerns about the bill. It did not get out of his committee last year.
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com