Our View: Law leaves nursing home victims in cold

Jan. 27, 2011
Wausau Daily Herald

In the rush to pass several big packages of jobs legislation out of the special session, Republicans in Madison have been guilty of overreaching. There's a provision within the recently passed tort reform bill -- now headed to Gov. Scott Walker's desk -- that would have the effect of making it easier for abusers of nursing home patients to cover up their wrongdoing, and shielding them from consequences.

That's wrong, and should be repealed.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a broad package of tort reforms last week, and Walker has said he'll sign the changes into law. Not everything in the bill is a bad idea -- many states cap punitive damages, for example, and the way this bill implements a cap seems reasonable.

But a provision within the law would for the first time prevent nursing home incident reports -- paperwork filed by employees whenever something bad happens -- from being admissible in court.

Lawyers and aging advocates argued that this would prevent cases of abuse from ever coming to light. In some ways, it could actually encourage abusers to cover up their actions -- if they lie in court, it would be impossible to show that nursing home records contradict them.

This won't help create jobs in Wisconsin, and it doesn't belong in Wisconsin law. Walker should send the bill back to the Legislature for some needed fine tuning.

Part of the idea behind Walker's "Wisconsin is Open for Business" push is to encourage investment by signaling to businesses that the state will offer them a business-friendly environment. That's a good thing. And while it's unclear that Wisconsin's tort environment has been that serious a hindrance to businesses here -- one certainly hears about our tax and regulatory environment long before one hears about lawsuits -- passing sensible tort reforms is fine.

But there's no good reason to give abusers this additional shield. This particular provision was a big part of the reason the bill was opposed by the AARP, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and a passel of other patient advocacy groups. It's not that those organizations are eager to see more lawsuits filed in Wisconsin. It's because they're concerned about protecting their members from actual cases of abuse.

So are we. The provision should go. Walker should send the bill back to the Legislature to fix it before he gives it his signature.

'Better grasp' makes better board

On the topic of whether Marathon County should reduce the size of its County Board, a less-than-enthusiastic Lance Pliml, chairman of the Wood County Board, recently told the Daily Herald he doesn't think Wood County's 2008 reduction from 38 to 19 members was a great idea. But he also conceded that members now "have a better grasp and understanding of the overall operation of the county."

That seems like a pretty big concession. Isn't that a big part of the argument for reducing the size of the Marathon County Board?

There's an enormous status-quo bias to these discussions. If you were to design the Marathon County Board from scratch today, there's no way you'd make it a 38-member board. A board this size is basically an anachronism.

And yet the discussion of reducing the size seems never to go anywhere, because, well, this is the way we've always done it and it could be a headache to change it.

Enough of that. Let's move forward.

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