I recently penned an open letter to the state’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) on a proposed amendment that I believe is wrong for the Florida Constitution and wrong for our state’s seniors. I shared an excerpt from that letter in this month’s article, and I hope you’ll take a moment to understand my point of view and the concerns that I have over this ill-advised proposal.
FHCA is the state’s largest and oldest long term care advocacy organization representing 82% of Florida’s nursing homes (today referred to as nursing centers), along with over 70 of our state’s larger assisted living facilities. I am writing to you today in opposition of Proposed Amendment 88. This letter is lengthy but vitally important to the future of long term care in Florida
It is important you learn my background so you can fully understand my strong opposition to this misguided proposal. Back in the early 1990s, my mother-in-law suffered a terrible seizure that left her in a coma for 16 years. She spent most of those 16 years in a nursing home before she finally passed away. It was an incredibly difficult time.
I have many memories of going to visit my mother-in-law, and as I walked the halls of the center, I’d pass many frail, elderly residents who suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. I felt for these residents, including one of my mother-in-law’s roommates who would regularly tell me the same story every time I came to visit. People who suffer from these cruel insidious diseases have a lifetime of experience distorted. Some of these patients are incredibly difficult to care for, yet, the caregivers are there for them anyway.
I learned a lot from that experience. I learned about the level of guilt felt by family members for placing their loved one in a nursing home, even if it is the only reasonable option for their loved one’s health and safety. I learned that certified nursing assistants, nurses and others working in these nursing care centers don’t have easy jobs. The family members who do visit often transfer their guilt onto hard-working staff members.
Several years after my mother-in-law’s passing, I was given the opportunity to interview for my current position as Executive Director of the Florida Health Care Association. My wife and I thought and prayed about the opportunity but frankly, after those 16 years visiting my mother-in-law, I wasn’t sure this was the job for me. However, the more I learned about the leadership of the association, the more I realized FHCA and its members wanted increased quality care for their residents and patients. I felt I was given this opportunity to come alongside these leaders to help give them the necessary tools for their continuous quality improvement.
And we are succeeding. Quality care improvements in our state’s nursing centers is a combined result of providers’ commitments to measurable improvements, along with staffing increases and regulatory reforms that the Legislature passed in 2001 through Senate Bill 1202. Florida made steady strides in its staffing ratios – the nurses and certified nursing assistants who are responsible for the hands-on resident care. Today Florida staffs at 4.6 combined nurse and CNA hours – that’s among the top 10 highest staffing ratios in the country. The 2001 reforms required risk management and quality assurance programs, care plans that are more resident-focused and have grievance policies and procedures which have fostered better communication among staff, family members and residents. The Legislature also expanded CNA requirements that makes these caregivers an active part of the care planning team, fosters better communication between CNAs and nurses and helps these CNAs be better prepared to care for residents.
Unfortunately, the tragedy that occurred at the Hollywood Hills nursing home has given some individuals a platform to disparage the profession, introduce legislation and in this case, attempt to amend the state Constitution. What happened in Hollywood Hills was unconscionable, but it does not reflect the state of quality in Florida’s care centers. Nor does it reflect the commitment of the thousands of hardworking caregivers who are making a difference in patients’ and residents’ lives every day.
CRC Proposal 88 is a “scorched earth” approach that literally attempts to undo almost two decades of thoughtful legislation designed to strike an appropriate balance that has worked well to guide Florida’s court system when it relates to nursing home care.
And now for the elephant in the room. Proposal 88’s author is Commissioner Brecht Huechen, who is a paid lobbyist for Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm that makes its living suing nursing homes. Mr. Heuchan has stood before the Legislature and testified for his client in an attempt to advance the firm’s desire to make it easier to sue. Note that these lawsuits would do nothing to help nursing home residents – just the lawyers hoping to cash in on large volumes of claims.
Need more proof that this is nothing more than a proposal that benefits this law firm? At a recent CRC meeting where Proposal 88 was addressed, one of the star witnesses was none other than Families for Better Care executive Brian Lee. The last time I checked, Wilkes & McHugh provided 100% of the funding for Families for Better Care.
The Commissioner offering the proposal, as well as one of the proposal’s biggest cheerleaders, are funded by personal injury attorneys who make nursing homes their cash cow. This is a huge conflict of interest.
This proposal is not about residents’ rights or quality care, which is what both Commissioner Heuchan and Brian Lee purported it to be when they stood before the commissioners. More money for personal injury attorneys, one firm in particular, is what this proposed amendment is all about. The fact is nursing home residents already have a guaranteed bill of rights in both state and federal law. Those rights are focused on ensuring dignity, choice, self-determination and quality of life. The select rights Proposal 88 contains focus on lawsuits and expanding who and how nursing centers can be sued. Florida’s legal system already ensures that individuals have their day in court, and in 2014, the Legislature ensured that nursing centers pay their judgements or they will lose their license. Apparently, that is not enough.
The Legislature flatly rejected several other ideas that have been included in Proposal 88, including suing passive investors. So now Mr. Heuchan is trying to use his appointed public position to slip those same changes into the Constitution. If he can’t win by going through the front door, he’ll try through the back door. Never mind the fact that groups such as the Florida Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida and Florida TaxWatch all have testified that this type of special interest group proposal does NOT belong in Florida’s Constitution. And I couldn’t agree more. Nursing center caregivers, our Legislature and the federal government are all actively involved in ensuring quality care continues to advance in our state’s nursing centers.
Don’t be fooled by this misguided proposal. It’s nothing more than a money grab by personal injury lawyers hoping to increase the number of lawsuits. I hope commissioners will see it for what it truly is, see the conflicts that surround it, and reject it.