Matt Campbell, the Little Rock lawyer and author of the Blue Hog Report blog, has filed an ethics complaint today against the Arkansas Health Care Association related to the nursing home lobby group’s spending on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at discouraging lawsuits against nursing homes and others for negligence and abuse.
A committee, Health Care Access for Arkansans, has been formed to pass an amendment to limit non-economic damages in a lawsuit for nursing home abuse, medical malpractice and the like to $250,000, with attorney fees capped at a third of the damage award.
The committee has raised about $606,000 so far, most spent to pay canvassers to gather petition signatures, now undergoing certification by the secretary of state. The Arkansas Health Care Association contributed $330,000 and Michael Morton, the Fort Smith nursing home owner enmeshed in a scandal over alleged bribery of a judge in a nursing home lawsuit, has contributed $125,000 through various corporate entities. With a few small exceptions, other nursing home entities kicked in the rest.
Campbell contends that because the nursing home lobby has contributed more than 2 percent of its annual revenues — $2.2 million to $2.25 million each of the last three years — to another ballot access committee, the law requires it to file as a ballot question committee itself. It, too, he argues must file the requisite information about revenues and expenditures required of ballot access committees. The law is aimed, presumably, at preventing using ballot access committees as a way to shield information about major sources of money.
Normally, the Ethics Commission would have 60 days to respond. But Campbell has asked for an expedited review because …
… if the matter is not expedited, it is entirely possible that the general election might have passed before a resolution is reached in this matter, and the people of Arkansas will have bee completely deprived of their right to know who is funding AHCA’s support of Health Care Access for Arkansans’ efforts. AHCA’s lack of transparency should not be rewarded simply because of the standard timeframe for this Commission’s procedures, given that good cause exists for this Commission to expedite the matter and resolve it much more quickly.
I’ve left phone and e-mail messages for Rachel Davis, the head of the Health Care Association, for response.
At this point, it is safe to say nursing home money is carrying the ball for the amendment. Whether Morton himself has contributed still more through the Association would be interesting, but not alter the essential dynamics — nursing homes are attempting to put a cap on the value of a human life in a nursing home at $250,000 and insure that a lawyer that sued for mistreatment would be sorely limited in recovery in lawsuits that sometimes take years to resolve. The bribery case involving Mike Maggio saw the then-judge reduce a $5.2 million verdict against one of Morton’s homes to $1 million. Morton has not been formally accused, but he supplied the campaign contributions that a middle man, Gilbert Baker, that Maggio said in a federal plea agreement influenced him to reduce the judgment. He’s attempting to withdraw that plea. Matt Campbell did groundbreaking work that raised questions about the scheme used to funnel nursing home money to Maggio, plotting that also sent money to other judicial candidates, notably Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood. He has also pursued other complaints that led to, among others, the resignation of Lt. Gov. Mark Darr.
Should the amendment make the ballot, most expect doctors and hospital groups to join in raising money to push the amendment, which will be pitched as an attack on greedy attorneys. It will be more of an attack, however, on injured people, particularly children and the elderly. They typically can prove little by the way of economic damages (loss of wages, for example) and thus be extremely limited in suing over gross abuse or the likes, say, of wrong-side brain surgery.
Because of past legislative successes, Arkansas nursing homes, which depend mostly on Medicaid financing, are virtually guaranteed a profit in the reimbursement formula, though a lawsuit can complicate matters, despite means taken by homes to insulate themselves in corporate structure and various insurance strategies. Should the day come when damage lawsuits could produce little against nursing homes in Arkansas, the properties could become even more valuable for purchase by nationwide chains.
Campbell’s complaint drew supporting fire from a group formed to oppose the amendment:
Statement from Martha Deaver, Committee to Protect AR Families:
“It is clear that the so-called Health Care Access for Arkansans is actually an organization bought-and-paid for through the nursing home industry’s dark money machine to increase nursing home profits. It was just a matter of time before people started to connect the dots behind this organization created to push a constitutional amendment that would give nursing homes a free pass to abuse and neglect the elderly. I look forward to the Ethics Commission’s attention and speedy response to this matter.”