Scientists may be getting close to verifying the existence of “dark matter.” But I’m way ahead of them, as I have detected massive amounts of dark matter here in Tennessee ... lurking deep inside the super-dense skulls of conservative legislators.
Conservatives by definition want to “conserve” things. What right-wing Tennessee legislators want to conserve above all things is the money of their rich patrons, regardless of how many ordinary Janes and Joes may end up suffering or dying as a result. Now that Tennessee’s Republicans have an oxymoronic “super majority,” they seem to be bent on killing off as many “unproductive” citizens as quickly as they can, by advancing “business friendly” legislation that strips us of our rights and legal protections.
Take, for example, tort reform as it applies to Tennessee nursing homes. The elderly residents of nursing homes are “unproductive” and thus in the crosshairs of trigger-happy Republicans.
At the same time that Tennessee has been moving toward less rigorous (i.e., more lax) regulation of nursing homes, new caps on legal damages are making it much harder for patients and their families to sue negligent operators. A possible — perhaps likely — consequence is that more elderly nursing home patients will suffer and/or die prematurely.
Tennessee tort law, revised in 2008, 2009 and 2011, currently caps pain and suffering claims against nursing homes at $750,000, with a higher $1 million cap applying to limited types of cases.
According to Nashville attorney Randy Kinnard the updated law “has made it virtually impossible, in some cases, for attorneys to recover a reasonable amount of money for the victims and their families.”
Mark Geller, a Memphis lawyer, said that the law allows nursing home operators to calculate the value of a patient’s life (and death) in advance: “A person’s life is worth $750,000. That’s it.”
There has been a recent push by Tennessee legislators to reduce the cap to $300,000. Because investigations of nursing home deaths can be very expensive, and because the damages remaining after expenses must be split between plaintiffs and their lawyers, many cases that went to court in the past would undoubtedly fall by the wayside under such a ridiculously low cap.
And the problem is not limited to nursing homes. According to John Day, a prominent Nashville attorney, the Tennessee legislature “is determined to change the rules of tort litigation for the benefit of defendants and those who would be defendants.” Day points out that medical malpractice claims filed in Tennessee are already down about 20 percent “mostly as a result of changes to the health care liability laws in 2008 and 2009.” Day predicts that filings “will continue to decrease given the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2011, which places artificial caps on damages in all tort cases and makes other anti-patient changes to our law.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee nursing homes already rank near the bottom nationally in important statistical categories such as registered nurse hours per patient per day, according to data compiled by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report published in August 2009, Tennessee is the worst state at identifying poorly performing nursing homes. In a 2008 report, the GAO’s auditors found that Tennessee inspectors missed 26.3 percent of serious deficiencies: those that either caused actual harm or placed patients in immediate jeopardy.
Without the threat of lawsuits things may get even worse, according to people in the know, such as the advocates and lawyers who work on behalf of the victims of nursing home negligence. Furthermore, many Tennessee nursing homes now require patients and/or their families to waive their rights to trials as a prerequisite to admission.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s election campaign collected more than $28,000 from the state nursing home association PAC. Speaker Beth Harwell’s campaign took in $11,000. And so it goes.
Dark matter may help hold the universe together, but here in Tennessee it seems more likely to make things fly apart.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.