Mean People's Court

On many fronts, the spiteful are doing harmful things that you should know about

SEIU lobbyist Lisa Hubbard said the union was not currently pursuing a specific tort-reform bill for the current California legislative session, whose legislative deadline passed earlier this month.

Rather, the union is merely conducting "research" on the issue of a possible crisis in nursing home liability insurance, Hubbard said.

Hubbard refused, however, to rule out the possibility that the "research process" would result in tort-reform legislation during the next legislative session.

"It's couched in cost-containment language," Doctor said. "They've decided there's a crisis in obtaining liability insurance for nursing homes."

The liability insurance crisis, however, is bogus. State laws allow nursing homes to pass along insurance costs to the government.

And Greg Stapley, spokesman for the Ensign Group of nursing homes, which is not part of the pact, said the cost of insuring nursing homes has declined from a post-9/11 peak, when insurance for all kinds of risk skyrocketed.

Stapley says that his chain declined to join the SEIU's lobbying pact after union representatives urged the company to join several years ago.

Four years ago several nursing home chains and the SEIU, which has thousands of members who work in nursing homes, agreed to lay down their arms and pursue their mutual goals of more money for the nursing home industry and for union employees.

Nursing home operators had previously spent large sums of money battling union organizing drives, hoping to keep pay low. A new front group, California United for Nursing Home Care, was designed to change all of that. This alliance between private nursing home owners and the SEIU publicly advertised itself as dedicated to better care. But at the heart of the deal was a tradeoff: labor's support for increased government nursing home subsidies, and tort reform, in exchange for relaxed union- busting by nursing home chains.

In 2004 the SEIU began, then abandoned, efforts to pass a tort-reform bill. Instead, the union focused its energies in recruiting John Burton to help push a $3 billion nursing home subsidy bill, which passed at the end of that year.

Soon, however, the lobbying pact will be up for renewal. Nursing homes who joined are wondering whether it's worth it to continue their alliance with the union.

"You've got the providers staring at this and asking themselves, "Are we going to re-up with these guys a few more years? And will the union be demonstrating some value going forward?" Stapley said.

The biggest plum the union could give the nursing home owners would be a bill making it hard for patients to sue when they're harmed or killed by nursing home cost-cutting. As it is, government regulations of nursing homes is so meager that such lawsuits are the only way to keep nursing home abuses in check. Under a proposal SEIU shopped around Sacramento in 2004, a new law would cap judgments patients received for pain and suffering at $250,000. The proposal also suggested changing current law — which says nursing home owners may be liable for damages if they are proven "reckless" in caring for patients — so that nursing homes could be sued only if it could be proved that they willfully harmed patients.

SEIU lobbyists are "very careful what they call it. They call it liability reform," said Stapley, the Ensign Group spokesman. For her part, Doctor, the patient advocate, said she'll be working the phones in an attempt to head off an SEIU-backed last-minute nursing home tort-reform legislation.

"I'm making sure as many people as might be interested know this is in the works. I think this is important for civil rights people to know. It's important for people in the rank and file to know what their union is doing," Doctor said.

Bicyclists, meanwhile, must busy themselves to convince the mayor to pay for adding yet another layer of environmental review to proposed bike lanes. And environmentalists must fight against efforts to turn the Sierra Club into an anti-immigration group.

Mean people suck. And if we don't watch them closely, there's no telling the damage they'll do.

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