Jan Scherrer: Bill for medical review panel blocks our access to courts

February 19, 2014 

Jan Scherrer of Versailles is a speech pathologist and advocate for Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform.

Sen. Julie Denton is doing a grand-finale "solid" for her wealthy benefactors before she leaves Kentucky's state Senate by once again pushing a medical review panel bill,.

This year, the nursing-home corporation trade groups and chambers of commerce have lured in the Kentucky Hospital Association and various associations of health care providers in an effort to impede harmed citizens' access to our courts. This brainchild of greedy nursing home corporations has now festered into a purulent group of misled trade organizations, adopting the misnomer, Care First Kentucky.

The Kentucky Medical Association, Kentucky Dental Association and Kentucky Pharmacists Association, among others, have now joined their efforts.

Participating professional association leaders should be ashamed and their members should be outraged that they have hitched wagons with such renowned profit-mongers.

This group is selling your legislators and fellow citizens the fantasy that we have too many frivolous health care lawsuits. That couldn't be further from the truth.

The Journal of Patient Safety reported that 210,000 to 440,000 patients annually who go to hospitals for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their deaths.

Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 180,000 Medicare patients a year die from adverse events in hospitals. The American Hospital Association chooses to cling to an outdated Institute of Medicine estimate of 98,000 annual preventable harm deaths. Any way you slice it, these numbers clearly indicate a crisis that begs for reforms in health care, not our justice system.

A ProPublica report details the uphill battle people experience when seeking justice after having been harmed in health care. Lawyers must invest thousands of dollars in preparing cases, and common sense dictates that any cases they accept have obvious and provable merit.

Damages are determined by estimates of future medical bills and lost wages, leaving children, stay-at-home moms and our elderly at a disadvantage. When you compound those factors with malpractice-damage caps, it becomes clear why many lawyers won't accept cases of patient harm, even when the damages are transparent and they're certain to win.

Moving from bad to worse, let's talk about nursing homes.

A grading system based on nursing-home inspection results gave Kentucky's nursing homes an overall grade of D. One in five of Kentucky nursing homes has been cited with a severe deficiency.

These facts moved Gov. Steve Beshear to state in a letter to Bernie Vonderheide, founder of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, that he wanted to see all Kentuckians actively engaged in improving our nursing-home care. The industry's focus remains on profits and tort reform, while it first should address existing problems like maggots in open wounds, resident sexual abuse and its use of antipsychotic drugs in place of hiring staff.

Instigators of Senate Bill 119 will tell you that surrounding states have passed such medical review panel legislation, resulting in attracting better health-care professionals. Not true. Indiana is the only neighboring state that uses review panels, and Indiana's nursing home care is abominable.

Other surrounding states have placed caps on damages. If that has drawn the best and brightest to their states, they're hiding it well. Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio and Virginia all fail to provide good nursing home care.

If this bill passes, Kentuckians' access to courts will be obstructed, delayed and made even more costly. Health care corporation attorneys' chief defense strategy is to delay.

They delay, and witnesses die or their memories fade. They delay, and plaintiffs surrender after their sense of justice and decency cracks and shatters under the strain of deferred litigation and lack of closure. The review panels will hand these corporate attorneys more delays and will further harm the harmed by making an already excruciating process even worse.

SB 119 will further degrade health care quality as problems will remain hidden and unchanged because they didn't reach the courtroom and the public's attention.

But the greatest damage will be that the legislation undermines what most Americans have been taught since childhood: When we are harmed or mistreated, we stand up and seek justice through our court system.

Call your legislators now and tell them to vote no on the medical review panel bill.

Jan Scherrer of Versailles is a speech pathologist and advocate for Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform.

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