Nursing home reform clears Senate

Friday, April 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Considering Senate resistance to nursing home reform in recent years, the notion that the chamber would pass such a bill without a dissenting vote seemed fantastic to those who led the latest effort.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said he never anticipated the 33-0 vote Thursday that sent the measure to the House of Representatives.

"It just proves the truth of the old aphorism of Congressman Gene Taylor that you never know how far a pickle will squirt until you squeeze it," said Kinder, the bill's sponsor.

State Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, was likewise surprised. However, he said public pressure for reform coupled with compromise on contentious aspects of the issue helped build support.

"There was an attitude change, and they wanted to get something," Dougherty said. "And we didn't get something weak. We got something strong."

The bill is a priority of Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers. Gov. Bob Holden, a Democratic, has said he would sign the bill in its current form.

Kinder said he was fairly confident the House wouldn't do anything to derail the effort, which at present is four years in the making.

"I am very hopeful the changes will be minimal, and we'll be able to move forward with great dispatch and put this one issue behind us," Kinder said.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, said certain aspects of the bill may prove problematic for some members, but she didn't foresee any deal breakers.

"It will change some, but it is definitely, absolutely, unquestionably on the fast track," Hanaway said.

The bill's key provisions include:

Boosting fines, which haven't been adjusted since 1979, from $10,000 to $25,000 per day a violation exists.

Closing the current loopholes that allow nursing home operators to escape fines for serious violations by fixing the problem, even if death or serious injury has resulted, or transferring ownership.

Making concealment of abuse or neglect a felony.

Requiring more extensive background checks for home owners and employees.

Allowing less frequent inspections of homes with established records for quality care.

One provision Hanaway dislikes would allow videotaped statements of elderly residents alleging abuse to be used against nursing home officials in civil proceedings.

The intent is to preserve the testimony of those who die or whose mental condition renders them incompetent before proceedings can begin. However, Hanaway is concerned the admissibility of such statements would deny the accused of the right to question their accusers.

"That would be the biggest problem," Hanaway said.

Dougherty said that provision plus those bolstering background checks and making sure fines stick are ones he is adamant must remain in the bill.

"If they tamper with those then we're going to have a major fight," Dougherty said.

House changes would have to be approved by the Senate.

The bill is SB 556.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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