Expect to hear plenty about SJR8 in coming months. Nursing home owners and the legislators to whom they contribute handsomely, along with other special interests, will employ advertising campaigns aimed at swaying voters into seriously restricting the amount courts can award victims of injuries, abuse and death.
Once the Legislature is in session the avalanche of advertising will make it appear this proposed amendment to our state Constitution will benefit everyone. I, for one, expect just the opposite.
While its impact would be broad, I'm particularly focused on the dire effect upon nursing home residents who too often are victimized by everything from shoddy care to lethal errors. Should this bad idea become law, I believe the biggest winners will be the offenders whose legal culpability will be capped at $500,000.
Medication errors have provided the latest evidence that reveals care in our senior care homes has been shamefully substandard. Martha Deaver, who heads Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, reports state inspectors have cited our nursing homes more times than those in Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma combined over the past five years. For instance, over 20 percent of our state's homes have been dinged each year, compared with an average of 5 percent in those states. As with many mistakes, medication errors often are deadly serious.
Millions upon millions of Medicaid dollars pour into nursing homes who carry sufficient liability insurance. I know some of the finest angels among us work in these homes because they care. I not only deeply admire what they do each day, but I sometimes wonder how they do it. Many are quick to concede their facilities are understaffed, undercompensated and undercapitalized as so much money is siphoned away from patient care to wind up at corporate offices.
With an aging population, medical advances and the industry's intense political activities, the profit margins in nursing homes inevitably will increase, yet too often at the continuing expense of their residents. Recent public embarrassments haven't deterred the industry's political involvements. It remains prolific in contributing to legislative candidates, lobbying those in power, and now toward pushing their anticipated sugar baby: SJR8.
I'm betting families forced to spend down their parents' assets and subject themselves to onerous bureaucratic red tape would prefer available dollars be invested primarily into patient care. Instead, SJR8 will help boost nursing homes' bottom lines and limit their liability, while disguised as a form of pro-business "tort reform."
The attempt to rig the justice system in favor of defendants in injury cases for me represents nothing less than the nursing home industry's greatest betrayal to the residents it should serve above all. Sadly enough, it seems every day we Arkansans somehow come out on the losing end when big money and friendly politicians join forces.
Yep, we surely will be hearing far more than we care to in months ahead about SJR8. Those pushing it will promise the initiative will make Arkansas more "jobs" friendly and prevent those lawyers and unscrupulous Arkansans from being lawsuit-happy. Oh, rest assured, this particular piggy's snout will be adorned with layers of expensive red lipstick (maybe even false eyelashes).
However, no one I know can cite a flood of lawsuits or runaway Arkansas juries granting unjustified awards to the injured. Seriously, can you? Arkansas juries are pretty much comprised of common-sense folks who could one day become injured or seriously harmed by another's actions and seeking a reasonable judgment in our courts. Perhaps they also will find themselves relying on nursing home care with a strict financial cap on the amount any wrong ranging from causing quadriplegia to a medication error is worth.
By needlessly amending our state's Constitution that has served us well since 1874, SJR8 assigns an arbitrary legal value to any life or catastrophic injury. It basically states no matter what happens, regardless of how terrible the circumstance, our lives can never be worth more than $500,000. The injured person then deducts any fees and expenses from that figure.
Anyone else believe such an un-realistic restriction provides justification to vote against this issue that so heavily favors those responsible for injury?
Never again will nursing homes or others who cause harm (and their insurance companies) worry beyond that amount over any financial consequence for their misconduct, gross negligence, or even for causing death.
Every citizen deserves, as our Constitution allows, the right to file a justifiable claim of any amount against a care home (or for any type of personal injury) and try their case before a jury of peers. The courts should continue to decide (without being hamstrung by limitations pushed by those who invariably will be defendants) what they believe is justifiable compensation.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 01/21/2018