May 18, 2011--The Wisconsin bill stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights garnered such huge opposition that another radical measure signed into law at the same time got less attention than it deserves. The Wisconsin Omnibus Tort Reform Act places huge "burdens on individuals who would sue businesses, which almost always enjoy a financial advantage," writes Lou Dubose in The Washington Spectator.
One of the most drastic reforms puts state records of abuse or neglect in nursing homes off limits to attorneys representing individuals suing nursing homes.
Wausau lawyer Christine Bremer Muggli [explained] that state investigations of abuse in nursing homes often begin with reports filed by aides who takes care of residents: "An aide who takes care of grandma returns from vacation and finds that grandma hasn't been rolled over for two days, or hasn't been changed for days, or has bruises on her."
The aide files a report, which by law is submitted to a state agency that follows up with an investigation. With the passage of the tort-reform bill, Wisconsin becomes the first state in the nation to deny attorneys access to state records that document abuse of their clients.
"The reports are now inadmissible as evidence," Bremer Muggli said.
Jeffrey Pitman sues nursing homes on behalf of residents who have suffered injury or neglect. He said he cannot recall a case in which he did not rely on an incident report. "Every one of my cases, I get the incident report and it has vital information not found anywhere else in a patient's medical record," Pitman said.
Restricting access to nursing home reports--opposed by AARP, the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Association, Disability Rights Wisconsin and a long list of advocacy groups--is a carve-out for an industry on the cusp of explosive growth, as baby boomers move into assisted living residences.
Incident reports have also been placed beyond the reach of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which conducts criminal investigations and prosecutions of nursing homes and assisted living centers.
"This is payback time," Bremer Muggli said. "The governor is settling the score with trial lawyers who didn't support him. And he's taking care of his donors, the for-profit nursing home operators, especially the big ones like Kindred." (Kindred Healthcare is a Fortune 500 company that operates almost 700 health-care facilities across the United States.)*
The new law is offensive enough on its face. But the effrontery is exponential, given how recently Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Chuck Grassley
and other prominent Republicans spread fears of
"death panels" and "killing grandma" if the national healthcare reform bill were to pass, even
though the provision they were referring to--Medicare coverage
voluntary end-of-life counseling--was originally drafted by Republicans and started with broad support.
Now that healthcare reform is law and no one's grandma has been killed as a result of it, Republicans have moved on to other talking points. But when a new law comes along that actually does pose a danger to seniors, we don't hear any of them condemning it.
No other state has created a law that hides nursing home incident reports from plaintiffs. By limiting nursing homes' accountability and liability, Wisconsin has increased the risk of every patient living in one.
Nice fight, Gov. Walker. You can put the gloves away now. You beat grandma.
Full story in The Washington Spectator (recommended--subscription required)
* The Washington Spectator, Lou Dubose, Editor, April 1, 2011 © The Public Concern Foundation, Inc.
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