Effort would add 'residents' bill of rights' to Florida constitution

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The man behind a proposal that would add a “Nursing Home and Assisted Living Facility Residents' Bill of Rights” to the Florida constitution says it is an effort to “establish a situation where the rights of residents of long-term care facilities are at least on par with the rights of everyone else.” At least one organization representing care and service providers, however, describes the proposal as “nothing more than an avaricious ploy by trial lawyers to profit from increased lawsuits.”

Proposal 88, filed in November by Florida Constitution Revision Commission member Brecht Heuchan, was approved by the commission's Declaration of Rights Committee on Friday and now moves to the full commission for consideration. If 22 of the commission's 37 members approve it, then the proposal will be put on the ballot for November's general election. At that point, 60% of voters would need to vote in favor of it in order for the language to be added to the state constitution.

“For me, the main crux of it is to establish a situation where the rights of residents of long-term care facilities are at least on par with the rights of everyone else,” including older adults in the state who do not live in long-term care facilities as well as owners and operators of assisted living communities and nursing homes, Heuchan told McKnight's Senior Living. “Unfortunately, in Florida, that's not the case, and I find that objectionable.”

Part of the impetus for the proposal were the deaths of 14 residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, FL, after a September power outage related to Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility's air conditioning, Heuchan said.

“After Hollywood Hills, the governor said, ‘Is there something our constitution could do to protect the residents that live in these long-term facilities in a more permanent way?' ” he said. “And so I started to look at that.”

The bill of rights' overarching principle is that residents are entitled to be treated courteously, fairly and with dignity. Toward that end, according to the proposal, facilities would be required to ensure that they have the financial resources or liability insurance to compensate residents and their families for “any loss, injury, and damage they suffer because of abuse, negligence, neglect, exploitation or violations of residents' rights.” Also under the proposal, the state government could implement new audits and require annual cost reports for reimbursement.

Some organizations representing providers have expressed concerns with the proposal. Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, for instance, called it “misguided.”

“The proposal claims to strengthen the rights of long-term care residents throughout Florida, but in reality it is nothing more than an avaricious ploy by trial lawyers to profit from increased lawsuits against nursing centers,” he said.

State and federal laws already protect assisted living and nursing home residents, Reed said. Florida, he added, “is among the best in the nation in nursing and CNA staffing ratios.”

The commission must complete its work by May 10 and then will send a report to the secretary of state, Heuchan said.

“I hope the full Constitution Revision Commission will see that these unreasonable provisions do not belong in the Florida Constitution,” Reed said. “In the long run, this will do more harm than good for the caregivers and residents in Florida's nursing centers.”

Heuchan said the wording of the proposal probably will change as the process progresses.

“It's a collaborative process with a lot of personalities and a lot of expertise by different people,” Heuchan added. “I appreciate the comments that have been made by opponents to the proposal. ...I do plan to make every effort to change it to make sure that those concerns are met and satisfied … [but] I'm not interested in talking about things that diminish the rights of residents.”

The commissioner said the proposal is aimed at facilities that “have histories of not taking care of people,” not facilities such as the 22 nursing homes in the state that have received the Gold Seal Award from the governor's Panel on Excellence in Long-Term Care.

“I'm glad that those people take good care of their residents. They should be praised for that, and I don't want to be an instigator for causing them more grief or making it harder for them to do their jobs,” he said. “I'm more focused on these poorer people who go to these facilities that aren't quite as good.”

The commission includes the state attorney general, 15 governor appointees, nine appointees from each branch of the state legislature and three appointees from the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Heuchan was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. He is president and CEO of ContributionLink, a political intelligence, data analytics and fundraising company, and also owns The Labrador Company, a Florida-based political and government affairs firm.

The Florida Channel website has posted a video of the Jan. 19 committee hearing as well as videos of other commission meetings.

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