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March 6, 2013

Wicked statecraft kills bills

The train was so freighted with baggage and on such a fast track — greased by lobbyists — that it barreled through a committee before the AARP’s alarms were heard. Moments later, in the mother of all unintended consequences, it collided with a raging bull on the state Senate floor. Its wreckage is rusting uncomfortably, in an unwelcoming House.

Such is the saga of Senate Bill 9, a brazen bid to discourage litigation against nursing homes through the cunning creation of medical review panels.

Gruesome wounds were on display in the upper chamber Feb. 13, as Sen. Ray Jones, D-31, a polished Pikeville attorney, showed oversized photos of ulcerated seniors and recalled the abuse and neglect of an exquisitely vulnerable population.

“These are Kentuckians!” he thundered. Sponsor Julie Denton, R-36, stunningly refused to “yield to a series of questions,” most of which Jones answered himself. “What kind of doctors are we gonna put on a screening panel? … How much money has been spent lobbying for this? … How many of these contract, hired-gun lobbyists have been hired?” he asked.

“And then, when the next election cycle rolls around, let’s see how much money the nursing home industry has spent on donations,” he added as some of the 13 lobbyists with the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities watched from the gallery.

During his spectacular rant, Jones conceded that the tort reform measure would clear the Senate but declared it “dead as a hammer” in the House. A partisan vote, 23 Republicans to 12 Democrats, proved a Pyrrhic victory. Two days later, Jones filed Senate Bill 183, which prohibits lobbying during legislative sessions.

His shock and awe continued — but with collateral damage — last Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee was finally considering a long-sought measure to create an adult abuse registry, Senate Bill 100, sponsored by Jones’ fellow Democrat Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-35. It proposes to purge from the care community more than 8,000 abusers identified by social workers. And the registry is pre-funded, with $2 million in the current executive budget.

Sen. David Givens, R-9, offered a substitute. “We turn the question on its head. Instead of saying, ‘Are you someone who’s on the adult abuse registry?’ we dissolve that; that concept is gone,” he said. “Instead we create … the ‘clear-to-hire’ list” and a process whereby an eligible job applicant would get a certificate from the state. He likened it to a college transcript and conceptualized the process as an untested, unseen bicycle with training wheels.

Jones was galled by a glaring exemption as he leafed through the substitute. “A nursing home could hire someone without that certificate?”

Givens replied, “We haven’t ridden that bicycle enough to know if it’s a good bicycle …”

“This isn’t about a bicycle,” Jones interrupted. “This is about thousands of people like my grandmother …”

Givens, one of the more sophisticated thinkers in the legislature, countered, “I have a fairly simple mind and I’m trying to use an analogy that helps keep me focused ...”

“I don’t need an analogy about a bicycle,” Jones said. “I’m trying to have an adult conversation about why we would not want long-term care facilities to require this $10 certificate!”

Givens stated, “We haven’t had the nursing home folks at the table in this conversation,” but “this has largely been driven by the intent to do good things.” He then asked for Harper Angel’s thoughts.

“I agree, senator,” she replied. “But they were invited to the table many times but did not appear.”

Jones noted their presence, adding, “Maybe we could ask their lobbyists to come up to the table and discuss it with us” before he decried “a lot of pandering to the nursing home industry.”

He called the substitute a sham and a travesty. Victims’ advocates agreed it would lessen protections, and the AARP withdrew its support for Senate Bill 100. After 45 minutes of debate on day 20 of 30, no vote was taken. But House Bill 367, which establishes an adult abuse registry, passed the House 96 to 0. Both measures are pending in the Senate amid a bitter impasse with the House over pension reform.

In a fiery floor speech last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-17, issued a dreadful declaration: “We can’t deal with the other so-called ‘big issues’ until we deal with this one.”

The Kumbaya Express has wrecked — and the wounds are festering.

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