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Nursing Home Residents Win Back Right to Sue

istock_68087517_small_sm.jpgIn recent years, nursing homes have increasingly asked -- or forced -- patients and their families to sign arbitration agreements prior to admission. By signing these agreements, patients or family members give up their right to sue if they believe the nursing home was responsible for injuries or the patient's death.

Now, in an unexpected move, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is forbidding nursing homes from entering into binding arbitration agreements with a resident or their representative before a dispute arises. The agency has issued a final rule prohibiting so-called pre-dispute arbitration agreements in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid patients, affecting 1.5 million nursing home residents. After a dispute arises, the resident and the long-term care facility could still voluntarily enter into a binding arbitration agreement if both parties agree.

For years, patient advocates have contended that those seeking admission to a nursing home are in no position to make a determination about giving up their right to sue. Families are focused on the quality of care, and forcing them to choose between care quality and forgoing their legal rights is unjust, the advocates said. Courts have sometimes struck down arbitration agreements as unfair, but others have upheld them.

"Clauses embedded in the fine print of nursing home admissions contracts have pushed disputes about safety and the quality of care out of public view," the New York Times wrote in its coverage. "With its decision, [CMS] has restored a fundamental right of millions of elderly Americans across the country: their day in court."

The nursing home industry has countered that the new rule will trigger more lawsuits that could increase costs and force some homes to close. Mark Parkinson, the president and chief executive of the American Health Care Association, said that the change "clearly exceeds" CMS's statutory authority.

Although the rule could be challenged in court, for now it is scheduled to take effect on November 28, 2016, and will affect only future nursing home admissions. Pre-existing arbitration agreements will still be enforceable.

To read the final rule, click here.

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