Nursing-home lobby gets its way

In the Kentucky House of Representatives, few voices speak out more forcefully on behalf of health issues than Rep. Tom Burch, who chairs the Health and Welfare Committee.

But Burch's voice seems strangely silent when the subject turns to the health and well-being of some of the state's most vulnerable people — the residents of the state's nursing homes. Annual attempts to legislate minimum staffing levels and make other reforms in nursing home regulations can't even get a hearing in his committee.

Part of the explanation Burch gave to the Herald-Leader's John Cheves for his own objections to the reform bills made little if any sense.

In addition to expressing concern about the cost of mandating minimum staffing levels at nursing homes, Burch worried that it would set a precedent that could affect staffing for schools and prisons — public institutions that have little in common with the private nursing home industry.

Burch, by the way, has an investment in a real estate trust that includes nursing homes. But under the lenient rules of the Kentucky General Assembly, that doesn't register as a conflict of interest, even though any reasonable ethics standards would argue otherwise.

Burch's investment and his unreasonable worries aside, the more likely reason nursing home advocates can't get a hearing in Frankfort is they don't have the ability the industry does to use payroll deductions to collect vast amounts of money from employees to be used in lobbying lawmakers at the state and national levels.

Although the industry spreads its largesse in a bipartisan manner, it is particularly troubling that it seems to have warped the values of Democrats in the state House, whose caucus campaign committee has received $74,850 from the industry in recent years.

After all, this is the party that presents itself to the public as the champion of the poor and downtrodden, in contrast to a Republican Party that acts as a servant to wealthy corporations and individuals.

But Burch told Cheves that, in addition to his own objections, House Democratic leaders haven't been receptive to advancing the nursing home bills filed annually the last several years.

In this case, then, it seems $74,850 can buy the corporate world of nursing homes some good Democratic servants, too.