October 2010 Archives

October 29, 2010

Pennsylvania Nursing Homes Vulnerable to Poor Regulation Because of Politics

Last week I wrote about the dangers of mixing politics with nursing home regulations. A recent story by ABC News made these dangers even clearer: a millionaire nursing home operator, unhappy that his business is being prosecuted for covering up the sexual abuse of a nursing home patient, is financing political advertising to bring down a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. That candidate also happens to be the Kentucky Attorney General whose office is prosecuting that nursing home. It worries me, as a Philadelphia injury lawyer, that the welfare of nursing home patients depends not only on nursing homes' actions, but on whether nursing home corporations can pour money into elections to get the regulators they want.

Terry Forcht, the millionaire in question, owns Hazard Nursing Home in Hazard, Ky. In his role as Attorney General, Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway told the Lexington Herald-Leader that nursing home administrator Sheila Noe and Forcht Group of Kentucky have been criminally charged with failure to report multiple incidents of suspected sexual abuse. The victim is an 88-year-old patient with Alzheimer's disease and the alleged perpetrator is another patient. State law required Hazard Nursing Home to report the suspected abuse. The state conducted an inspection when it became aware of the suspected abuse, and cited the home for endangering a resident's health or safety by violating state regulations. The victim's family members said that the nursing home covered up the abuse and only found out about it when an attorney notified them, after having learned of it in depositions for an unrelated case.

The victim's family has filed a lawsuit against the nursing home. In my view as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, they made the right decision. Nursing home patients and their families can't rely only on the government to protect them from abusive or neglectful nursing homes. Government agencies' effectiveness in finding and stopping abuse can be undermined by weak penalties, like those the Hazard Nursing Home administrator could face for failure to report. That is a misdemeanor charge with a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and $250 fine. Worse, as this election in Kentucky shows, politics can interfere too, even if the workers within the agency want to do their best to help nursing home patients. Patients and their families must educate themselves about their rights and stand up for themselves.

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October 22, 2010

Politics Can Affect Quality of Pennsylvania Nursing Homes and Their Caregiving

As a Pennsylvania nursing home negligence attorney, I was interested in a recent article about nursing home abuse as an issue in political campaigns. A candidate for governor in Iowa has criticized the state's nursing home inspectors for doing their job of making sure that nursing homes abide by state and federal regulations that protect patients. This article makes very clear that enforcement of laws that keep vulnerable nursing home patients safe can be left up to political whim. That means that it's very important for nursing home patients and their families to know their rights, so that if government watchdogs fail them, they can protect themselves and hold negligent nursing homes accountable.

Terry Branstad, the Republican candidate for governor in Iowa, says that he thinks state regulators should collaborate and cooperate with nursing homes, instead of having what he calls their "gotcha attitude" of looking for violations. He said that he would replace the head of the state's Department of Inspections and Appeals with someone willing to follow his ideas -- even though, as the current head of that agency points out, his ideas amount to a refusal to enforce state nursing home laws. During Branstad's previous tenure as Iowa governor, from 1983 to 1999, the state failed to inspect nursing homes as state law required, and to adequately penalize nursing homes that neglected patients as federal law required. That was true even in cases where patients had died. In one case, the state fined a home just $500 for incidents including the deaths of two patients, and the neglect or sexual abuse of others.

After Branstad left office, the state substantially increased the fines on negligent nursing homes. Nursing home industry officials have fought back by raising funds for political candidates who promise to represent their financial interests over the needs of their vulnerable patients. One state legislator, Pat Ward, took money from a nursing home that had been decertified by the federal government for widespread neglect, and she then pressured the state inspector to restore the nursing home's certification right away. She said, "We don't want [inspectors] just coming down on them and slamming them with fines. We want them to communicate with the industry and tell the ManorCares of the world what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to improve things."

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I'd like to point out that it's part of a nursing home company's job to know the laws and regulations that apply to them. Nursing homes violate laws and regulations not because they are honestly ignorant of them -- although that would constitute negligence in itself -- but because doing so is good for their bottom line. Hiring adequate staff and training them to provide good patient care costs money that could otherwise be going into nursing home company owners' pockets. Here in Pennsylvania, people may not be thinking about the impact of politics on nursing home quality, since we haven't had prominent candidates openly state that they oppose nursing home regulation. But as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I hope that all nursing home patients and their families will learn about their rights to good care regardless of which political party is in power.

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October 15, 2010

Study Shows Pennsylvania Nursing Home Abuse Lawyers Essential to Protecting Seniors

The Kansas City Star recently reported on a study of how the civil justice system is the best way to protect nursing home patients. The new study from the American Association for Justice, an industry organization of personal injury attorneys, shows that litigators like our Pennsylvania nursing home negligence lawyers are the best equipped to hold accountable corporate nursing homes and insurance companies that abuse the elderly.

The AAJ report estimates that as many as 1.5 million seniors are abused every year. Frighteningly, violations that put patients in "immediate jeopardy," at risk of serious injury or death, went up 22 percent between 2000 and 2008, and over 90 percent of all nursing homes were guilty of at least one violation. Often, these violations happen because nursing homes are emphasizing profits over patient safety by keeping their staffing levels low. High patient-staff ratios create serious problems. Harried staff members don't read patients' charts, and then fail to take safety precautions specified in the charts, resulting in horrible but preventable accidents like the eye-gouging one man suffered. Poorly trained, underpaid staff members may also not move patients as often as they should, resulting in bedsores that can turn into serious health problems.

In my work as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I have helped many families who noticed signs that nursing home staff were neglecting their loved ones -- signs like bedsores or over-medication. Regulatory agencies and legislative bodies don't always follow up on or respond to abuse reports effectively, but trial attorneys can hit greedy corporate nursing homes where they will feel it -- in the wallet. After a victim receives a settlement or a verdict that forces a nursing home corporation to pay out thousands of dollars for its negligence, that nursing home corporation may be much more careful in the future to avoid repeating its expensive mistakes.

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October 8, 2010

Many Pennsylvania Nursing Homes Score Poorly in Federal Quality Ratings

The Daily Item of Sunbury, Pennsylvania recently reported that many Pennsylvania nursing homes have earned substandard scores on the federal government's five-star quality rating system. The ratings are available on the Nursing Home Compare website at Medicare.gov. As a Pennsylvania nursing home negligence attorney, I think it's unfortunate that so many nursing homes are not performing as well as they should be. However, it's great that patients and their families have this information, so that they can make better-informed choices about which nursing homes will give them the care that they deserve.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) began making the quality ratings available in December 2008. The ratings include nursing homes that participate in Medicare or Medicaid, and are based on three areas: staffing, quality-of-care measures and, most importantly, health inspections. Mary Kahn, senior public affairs specialist for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, said that the ratings offer "an incredibly detailed look at nursing homes' health and safety: administration of medications, incidents of avoidable issues like bed sores, whether residents decline in an unexpected way." Kahn added that families should also visit nursing homes to see for themselves what they're like, and they should use the ratings to ask questions about areas in which the homes have scored poorly. For example, if the home has scored poorly in staff-to-patient ratios, a family might ask the nursing home administrator whether they plan to hire additional staff, and when.

Here in Pennsylvania, families will have to ask a lot of questions. In Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union Counties, there were six nursing homes that rated only one star out of five, far below average: Kramm Healthcare Center in Milton; Mount Carmel Nursing and Rehabilitation in Mount Carmel; and Mountain View, A Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Coal Township. The other three are Grandview Health Homes Inc. in Danville; the Manor at Penn Village in Selinsgrove; and Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village in Lewisburg. Six other nursing homes rated only two out of five stars: Golden Living Center Mansion in Sunbury; Kramm Nursing Home in Watsontown; Manor Care Health Services in Sunbury; Nottingham Village in Northumberland; Sunbury Community Hospital's Skilled Nursing Facility; and Rolling Hills Manor in Millmont. Only three nursing homes in these counties earned three or more stars. RiverWoods in Lewisburg managed to rise from a one-star rating in 2008 to a three-star rating; and Emmanuel Center for Nursing in Danville and Shamokin Area Community Hospital's Skilled Nursing Facility both have four stars out of five.

A low rating doesn't necessarily mean that patients are in danger, but in my experience as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, it's a sign that patients and their families should pay attention to. A low rating can signal that a nursing home prioritizes profits over patients, or that it's not training its staff or hiring them in sufficient numbers to ensure good patient care.

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