There is no place for special favors in our state’s basic charter, the Florida Constitution. Every provision in that document should benefit all of us equally, and officials working to revise the Constitution should be above any action designed to profit one group over another.
In today’s charged political environment, the public has a right to expect the highest ethical standards from its public officials. Unfortunately, one appointed member of the Constitution Revision Commission seems to still be serving the master who pays him to be a lobbyist. This commissioner has ignored his solemn duty to address the needs of all the people of Florida. Worse still, he would have us believe that he is actually doing it to protect some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents. Now he has been hit with a conflict of interest claim, and deservedly so.
Brecht Heuchan is a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, but for many years he has been a paid lobbyist for Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm that makes its living suing nursing homes. Mr. Heuchan has stood before the Legislature and testified for his client in an attempt to advance his client’s desire to make it easier to sue. Note that these lawsuits would do nothing to help nursing home residents – just the lawyers hoping to cash in on large volumes of claims.
The Legislature flatly rejected his idea to sue passive investors in 2017. So now Mr. Heuchan is trying to use (some would say abuse) his appointed public position to slip those same changes into the Constitution. If he can’t win by going through the front door, he’ll try through the back door. The big problem is, that “back door” is the most fundamental document of state government, something that is supposed to be limited to the broad structure of government and its compact with the public.
This is simply wrong, and it must be stopped. The American Senior Alliance filed the ethics complaint against Mr. Heuchan for this obvious conflict of interest. The Florida Health Care Association, which represents the majority of our state’s outstanding long-term care facilities, agrees with the Alliance’s reasoning and supports its complaint.
Not only does Mr. Heuchan’s proposal not belong in the Constitution, but it’s entirely unnecessary. It would add zero new protections to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and would only bypass decisions of the Legislature and expand ways that trial attorneys can sue. Mr. Heuchan says it’s a response to the terrible tragedy in which more than a dozen residents lost their lives in a South Florida nursing home during Hurricane Irma, but it wouldn’t do anything to fix or prevent what happened there. It would only give attorneys – his clients – more opportunity to sue.
Here is why the proposal is unnecessary: Nursing home residents have been guaranteed a bill of rights since 1976 thanks to Florida’s Legislature. In 1987 Congress further codified those rights when it passed the Nursing Home Reform Act. That Act lists specific rights for residents, and requires each nursing home to care for its residents in a manner that promotes and enhances the quality of life of each resident, ensuring dignity, choice, and self-determination.
Mr. Heuchan is offering his proposal under the guise that nursing home residents don’t have the same rights as you or me – which is completely misleading. What he is really doing is helping a law firm from whom he benefits financially.
And that’s just wrong. Wrong for the people of Florida, and wrong for the Florida Constitution.
Emmett Reed is Executive Director of Florida Health Care Association, the state’s first and largest advocacy organization for long-term care providers and the residents under their care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.