Politics & Government

Kentucky group wants panel to review lawsuits against nursing homes

A long-term care industry group wants a new law in Kentucky that would create medical review panels to evaluate potential lawsuits against nursing homes, personal care homes and some facilities for the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

Legislation has not been filed for the 2012 General Assembly, but an attorneys organization and a nursing-home reform advocacy group are already opposing the proposal supported by the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities.

Under the proposal, medical review panels would be made up of three physicians and chaired by a neutral attorney who would not vote on the case, Ruby Jo Cummins Lubarsky, president of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, said in a statement.

The complaining party and the respondent would choose the first two panelists, and those panelists would select the third panelist, Lubarsky said. The complaining party could pursue a lawsuit in court, but the panel's findings would be admissible in court.

The medical review panel process would "help eliminate frivolous lawsuits against the long-term care industry," Lubarsky said.

The Kentucky Justice Association, an attorneys group, is against the proposal because it "makes nursing home corporations less accountable for the neglect and abuse of Kentucky's elderly citizens," said Maresa Fawns, the association's executive director. "The entire purpose of this proposal is to insulate the nursing home corporations from the substandard care they deliver to our loved ones.

"If nursing homes provided more staffing and better care, the need for lawsuits would be greatly diminished. America's greatest generation deserves the same freedoms and protections as everyone else," Fawns said.

Fawns' group says the creation of the panels would interfere with citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

The Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities and Kentucky's long-term care profession "believe it is time to fix the state's long-term care liability system to ensure that quality patient care remains the focus for our profession, rather than litigating lawsuits," Lubarsky said in a statement to the Herald-Leader.

"Kentucky's long-term care profession has seen a drastic increase in litigation from lawyers whose sole practice has been limited to targeting our nursing facilities," Lubarsky said. "Their primary tactic is to exploit the integrity of our survey process with misleading advertisements designed to alarm the public about a supposed failure to provide quality care in our facilities. Contrary to these disingenuous advertisements and false public perception, data from the federal government shows that Kentucky's long-term care facilities provide a higher standard of care than most other states in terms of our practices and staffing levels," she said.

Lubarsky said Indiana has a law that requires medical review panels.

Bernie Vonderheide, founder of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, called the idea of medical review panels "blatantly unfair to residents of nursing homes."

But Lubarsky said "the findings of the panel could be used in court to uphold the resident's issues and help promote a more efficient judicial process."

Anticipating that legislation will be introduced, Vonderheide has asked his group's members to contact House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and ask him not to support legislation that would include the proposal.

Stumbo said recently that he had heard from people on both sides of the issue. "I would never support any measure that would deny a person his or her day in court if injured. But I also understand that small, rural nursing homes are in extreme jeopardy because of out-of-state predatory law firms," Stumbo said. "Given that, the only responsible thing is to gather information on the issue and keep an open mind."

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, did not respond to questions.

"Kentucky's long-term care profession has always remained supportive of the state and federal laws that protect our residents," Lubarsky said, "but we are strenuously opposed to the culture of litigation and blame facing our profession."