US Program Looks at Nursing Home Abuses Print E-mail
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Pamela A. MacLean

US prosecutors in California are experimenting with an innovative program that could result in more federal cases against nursing homes where seniors are neglected or abused.

(Photo: Don Buciak)

US Attorney Melinda Haag has begun reviewing the thousands of complaints filed in Northern California each year to see if they warrant civil or even criminal investigation.

Since the program began two months ago, a consultant working with prosecutors has gathered complaints ranging from inappropriate discharge of frail or sick residents, inappropriate use of drugs, such as anti-psychotic medications, to control patients without family consent or refusal to readmit residents after their acute care hospital stays.

"The US Attorney's Office is committed to improving the lives of people living in nursing homes," said Haag, who's based in San Francisco.

The program reflects growing national concern about nursing home care, despite past efforts to curtail it. In 1987 Congress passed the Nursing Home Reform Act to address reports of nursing home abuse and neglect. To participate in Medicare or Medicaid, nursing homes must protect patient health and well being by providing adequate care and promoting individual dignity and quality of life.

Still, as 78 million baby boomers set to retire over the next 20 years, the number of abuse cases continue to rise, prompting authorities to take action.

In July, a Maryland nursing home assistant was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing pain medication from a 94-year-old resident. A former nurse at a Frankfort, Kentucky nursing home was charged with neglect for failing to monitor fluid intake for a patient, resulting in dehydration and hospitalization.

And in Washington state, one of six employees of Albert Lea nursing home was sentenced to 180 days in jail in October for physical and sexual abuse of nursing home residents.  Brianna Broitzman was a teenager when the abuse occurred.  She was tried as an adult.

Thousands of Complaints
In California alone, roughly 43,500 complaints against nursing home and assisted living facilities were reported to the state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman last year.  Of those, more than 4,600, or roughly 11 percent of complaints involved serious abuse, neglect or financial fraud, according to Joseph Rodrigues, California's long-term care ombudsman in Sacramento.

The new federal program is expected to examine poor quality of care and patient neglect complaints that have led to injuries or preventable illness. Rodrigues welcomed the federal interest.

 "It is unusual for them to get involved," he said. Prior to this program, he said serious complaints were generally directed to local law enforcement or the Bureau of Medical Fraud and Elder Abuse in the state Attorney General's office.

The state office tracks 115 types of complaints that affect the residents in long-term care facilities.  These can range from lost items and cold food, to more serious complaints of physical or sexual abuse, neglect by staff, exploitation, theft and verbal abuse. Rodrigues' office also meets with nursing home representatives if a patient is evicted or refused readmission after a hospital stay.   

Families and victims of abuse may file civil suits against homes as a result of abuse.  A jury in San Diego, California awarded the family of a 76-year-old nursing home $114 million in July for egregious abuse and neglect.  The staff failed to protect a resident a high risk for falls.  She suffered head trauma and broken arm after two weeks in the home and never fully recovered.  The victim was later allowed to become malnourished and dehydrated.