Another aspect of nursing homes and assisted living facilities that Watrel finds especially offensive is how profits are more important than residents. Part of the challenge of his work, he says, is having to go against corporations with deep pockets, and navigate laws that are weak and favor big business over humanity.
“Generally, nursing home and assisted living facility owners and operators make a fortune. It’s a very profitable business, and the government doesn’t do a whole lot to regulate it. Of course, there are regulations in place, but as far as the financial reimbursement part, it’s still the Wild West. It seems that everything comes down to the bottom line with the owners and operators, which I understand is what they are ultimately in business for, but it should never be at the expense of a resident’s health or wellbeing.”
Despite the horrors Watrel has witnessed throughout his career serving as both champion and aggressive advocate for these victims, he somehow manages to retain a positive attitude and unwavering belief that he can be a part of the solution. He fervidly believes that by actively challenging both existing laws as well as the owners and operators of long-term care facilities, he can at least improve this dismal situation and finds great satisfaction when his client can find justice.
“We are righting a wrong. What we’re trying to do is bring about some sort of change in the operation, because having to pay money brings about change,” he says. “My dad was in the military, an officer in the Army, and he used to say, ‘When it costs you money, you will learn.’ And that’s basically how it works in the nursing home and assisted living facility industry. When you cost them money, they will change the policy or procedures. They may get more staff. These changes may only be for a year or two, but those changes may spare some another resident’s suffering, and maybe another family member won’t have to go through the agony of losing a loved one. You’re saving other lives through change.”
Watrel’s ongoing battle isn’t confined to the courtroom either. He’s very active in such things as Home Instead Senior Care, Seniors on a Mission, and other various senior advocate organizations.
As the chair of the Nursing Home Task Force for the Florida Justice Association, he fights bad legislation from the industry as well as promotes legislation that will compel owners and operators to permanently make the kinds of changes and improvements that will ultimately save lives.
“Right now, we’re working on a bill to eliminate giving half of the punitive damage award to the state,” Watrel explains. “As it stands now in the state of Florida, if someone gets punitive damages in a judgement, half of it has to go to the state and then they hand it out to the industry to spend as they choose. It is a ridiculous law, and what it was designed to do was to discourage anyone from getting punitive damages.”
There is no lack of areas where improvements are necessary, and Watrel and the task force always have a laundry list of items to address. Another important issue they are currently working on has to do with requiring real liability insurance in the nursing home industry, not just self-insurance.
“We always try to go for real liability insurance, and a lot of people don’t understand this, but you don’t have to have real liability insurance to run a nursing home. All an owner or operator has to do is put up $10,000 with a self-insurance retention company and you can get a license to operate. We have operators who have a $25,000 limit of liability insurance on claims and when you make a claim, they just say they have no funds left. That’s not fair and it’s always the worst operators who do that,” says Watrel. “You know, we all have to have licenses to drive a car or own a home. This is the only industry where that’s really not required to carry real liability insurance. It is outrageous.”