FLA: Strength of nursing home law faces test

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Strength of Florida nursing home law faces test

The Florida Legislature passed a law in May that imposed limits on lawsuits against nursing homes while also setting aside $76.6 million to add staff in nursing homes. Now nursing homes are saying they won't be able to meet deadlines for nurse staffing levels.

By Greg Groeller | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted September 17, 2001

After a bruising political battle, the state Legislature approved a law in May that imposed limits on lawsuits against nursing homes, enraging some consumer advocates and lawyers.

Hoping to solve quality-of-care problems within the industry -- and to assuage critics of the lawsuit caps -- legislators also set aside $76.6 million to add staff in nursing homes and to hire more state inspectors.

More than half that money -- $42.5 million -- was supposed to lead to the hiring of more certified nursing assistants -- the workers who spend the most time with residents. Nursing homes, which already employ more than 15,000 CNAs statewide, must increase their staff-to-patient ratios three times over the next three years.

The first deadline is Jan. 1, 2002. But Florida's largest nursing home association is already warning that many homes won't be able to meet it.

The group has had news conferences in Jacksonville and Tampa to blame the situation on a severe, nationwide shortage of nurses and to urge people to consider careers in nursing. It plans to do the same in Orlando within the next few weeks.

"We are making a personal plea to the community for people who have left the industry to come back, and for those who may be considering such a profession to give us a try," said Ed Towey, a spokesman for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes.

Some critics see the news conferences as the start of an industry campaign to rescind the part of the new law that requires the hiring of more certified nursing assistants.

"The cynic in me wonders whether they are laying the groundwork to come into next year's legislative session to ask for some sort of moratorium on the staffing mandates," said Steve Vancore, a spokesman for Wilkes & McHugh, a Tampa-based law firm that sues nursing homes.

By Jan. 1, nursing homes must increase their staffs so that each resident gets at least 2.3 hours of care a day on average, compared with the current minimum of 1.7 hours. Average care must rise again to 2.6 hours a day by Jan. 1, 2003, then to 2.9 hours by Jan. 1, 2004.

The nursing home association estimates that, at that rate, Central Florida's 112 nursing homes have to add 900 certified nursing assistants a year -- or 2,700 over three years. And that doesn't include jobs that must be filled to offset normal turnover.

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