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SB 9 hits home for local family

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Sen. Jimmy Higdon votes in favor of bill aimed at reducing nursing home lawsuits

By Stevie Lowery

Senate Bill 9 is a piece of legislation that Melissa Lee Knight takes quite personally.
If signed into law, the bill would require possible lawsuits against nursing homes to go through a review panel before going to court. The bill passed the Senate last week and now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives.
The bill hits home for Knight and her family because they filed a claim against the personal care home where her brother, Larry Lee, lived before he walked away from the facility on Aug. 4. He was found dead Sept. 3, near the Licking River in Falmouth, Ky, only a few miles from where he went missing.
Knight and her family wanted the facility to be held liable for its negligence, so they filed a claim against the home. The claim was resolved, but she empathizes with families who have to jump through numerous hoops to get the justice their loved ones deserve. Knight sees SB 9 as just another hoop.
“To me, this bill is adding another layer, another road block of bureaucracy for those people who feel like they’ve been wronged and need to go after some kind of justice for their loved ones,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even have someone who will fight for them. Why make it more difficult?”
From personal experience, Knight knows how incredibly hard it is to navigate the system and get answers. The legislature's priority should be protecting nursing home patients, not looking out for the long-term care companies, Knight said.
“Why does the nursing home industry get to use the government to be an intermediary for them on this?? Knight said. “I just don’t understand how that’s fair.”
Knight believes the legislature should be focusing its efforts on improving the care in nursing home facilities. Forty percent of Kentucky nursing homes are ranked below or much below average by the United States Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2012, Kentucky ranked No. 1 in overall federal fines with more than $2 million, and also ranked first in the average number of serious deficiencies per home, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
If the level of care was improved at nursing homes, then the number of lawsuits would decrease, Knight said.
“It’s common sense,” she said. “If you recognize there’s a problem in that system, wouldn’t it be better to throw money and people and resources into fixing those problems instead of creating a layer to prevent legal action against the homes who aren’t doing what they should be doing?”
State Sen. Jimmy Higdon voted in favor of SB 9, which he predicts will die in the House of Representatives. But, according to Higdon, it’s a necessary bill.
“One of the problems we have in Kentucky is that liability insurance for a nursing home is about $5,500 per bed, per year,” he said. “You take 100 rooms at $5,500 a year, you’re spending a tremendous amount of money for liability insurance. That’s money that could be spent on staffing. That’s money that could be spent on a lot of other things to give better patient care. Being a business person, I understand those issues.”
Because of the high cost of liability insurance, many nursing homes are choosing not to carry liability insurance anymore, and state law doesn’t require them to, according to Higdon. SB 9 is the legislature’s attempt to give the nursing homes some relief from the outrageous liability insurance rates they’re paying, he said.
Higdon said constituents on both sides of the issue have lobbied to him about SB 9, and that there’s a great deal of misinformation being circulated about the bill.
“It does not prevent anyone from seeking a lawsuit against a nursing home,” Higdon said. “The people that are against this have done a tremendous job making it look like a bad bill, but there is a reason for doing this.”
However, unless the Senate and House can come up with some compromises in the legislation, the bill will die in the House.
“There’s far too much opposition to it,” Higdon said. “It’s a very emotional issue.”

Focus on mental health issues
SB 9 could potentially affect the families of those with mental illness as well because, often times, mental health patients end up in nursing homes.
However, Higdon said the state legislature is focused on improving the services available for the mentally ill.
“It’s a problem that becomes more transparent everyday,” he said. “We do take it seriously. And it takes a lot of our resources. It’s a constant issue.”
Higdon said the state’s health and welfare committee will be having a hearing regarding an incident involving a local man that suffered from mental illness. David Ray Clarkson Jr., 23, was bipolar and schizophrenic and on May 30, 2012, Clarkson was sent to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington and was labeled ?high risk? for suicide. However, after being assessed, he was sent home in a taxi. Three days later, he committed suicide. Members of Clarkson’s family believe if he had been admitted to Eastern State Hospital that night, he would still be alive today.
Higdon said he’s going to have Clarkson’s family attend a health and welfare committee meeting during the interim in June.
“What happened to her brother is unthinkable,” Higdon said. “Here is a institution of last resort. We have a court order sending him there and they send him home. That’s not the way the system is set up. Somebody screwed up. We have to get to the bottom of it.”