SID SALTER: Mississippi's elderly ciitizens need less 'tort reform' protection

By Sid Salter

Like a lot of people in their 50s, I’ve already faced the difficult decisions of caring for my parents – first at their home, later at my home and finally, in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
My father died 20 years ago in the public Neshoba County Nursing Home. He was battling the effects of several strokes, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Dad got the best and most compassionate of care because of a great staff and the fact that my mom was there twice a day checking on him.
Mom’s “golden years” soon faded into the awful erosion of Alzheimer’s disease. She went from living in her home to living in my home, then to increasingly structured levels of assisted living before spending her final days in a private facility near my home.
Caps in place
My folks were fortunate. The people we paid to care for them when we could no longer care for them treated them with respect and compassion.
That’s the way it is in most of Mississippi’s nursing home, but not in all of them.
Nursing home abuse happens in Mississippi like it happens in the rest of the country – physical abuse, sexual abuse and financial abuse. There are over 15,500 Mississippians in 184 Mississippi skilled nursing facilities.
During the debates over tort reform in the last decade, nursing homes and insurance companies fought for caps on lawsuit damage awards in great measure so they could afford liability insurance and be protected from “jackpot justice.” The Legislature gave them a $500,000 damage cap on lawsuits, as they asked.
Accountability
But it seems that some Mississippi nursing homes don’t carry enough liability insurance to cover those damage caps if a vulnerable elderly person is injured, mistreated or abused while in their care.
House Bill 536 requires non-government nursing homes to carry the same $500,000 in liability coverage that government nursing homes carry under the Tort Claims Act. But insurance company and nursing home lobbyists are working overtime to kill the bill. Why?
The nursing homes and the insurance companies got the “tort reform” caps they sought. Now, the elderly deserve some accountability from those same entities with the passage of HB 536.
The bottom line is that some Mississippi nursing homes, liability insurance companies, their lobbyists and the politicians in the Legislature who are in their pockets like the idea that nursing homes are underinsured. The very fact that some nursing home fly under the radar with less liability insurance than would be necessary to compensate a vulnerable adult or their families for the fact that an elderly patient was beaten, neglected, raped, robbed or mistreated while in their care keeps victims from suing.
How? If there’s no liability insurance, the trial lawyers can’t afford the expenses of the lawsuit. In addition to the caps, the state’s nursing homes got a lot of additional protections that makes it harder to sue them during the tort reform wars.
The House passed HB 536. It’s in the state Senate, in State Sen. Buck Clarke’s Senate Insurance Committee, where the bill is struggling. It’s unclear whether Clarke will even let his committee vote on the bill. If he doesn’t, victims of nursing home abuse will have him and the Senate leadership to thank when elderly victims of nursing home abuse have no path to hold the nursing homes financially accountable.
Mississippi’s elderly need less tort reform, not more.
Contact Clarion-Ledger Perspective editor Sid Salter, a sybndicvated columnist, at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.