January 2012 Archives

January 16, 2012

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Bill Establishing Informal Review of Nursing Home Violations

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was very interested in a bill that recently became law in Harrisburg. The Long-Term Care Nursing Facility Independent Informal Dispute Resolution Act will establish a new process for Pennsylvania nursing homes facing regulatory penalties after state regulators' inspections or responses to complaints. A press release from State Rep. Mauree Gingrich of Lebanon said the process will give long-term care facilities the option of using the current regulatory process through the state Department of Health, or choosing an outside reviewer at their own expense. The bill was hailed by state legislators including Gingrich for its potential to save money for nursing homes. It was passed in the state House Dec. 16 and signed Dec. 22, with an effective date of April 1, 2012.

Under the act, nursing homes now have the option of bypassing the current review process when they are found out of compliance with a state safety regulation. They may still use that process, but they may also hire a private Quality Improvement Organization at their own expense. Legislators said this would permit nursing homes with compliance problems to dispute inspectors' findings before those findings are entered into federal systems that collect nursing home quality data. This, in turn, would permit homes to avoid litigation and thus save money. Proponents emphasized that the new system would still ensure quality of care for nursing home residents. Opponents of the bill, including organizations that advocate for the elderly, asked legislators to add provisions allowing patients and their families to have a voice during this process.

Cutting off patient access to the review process is concerning -- but as a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I am concerned about other aspects of this bill as well. Allowing nursing homes with safety problems to choose an outside inspector creates an opportunity for nursing homes to essentially buy the regulation they prefer, by choosing QIOs that are willing to provide whatever answer the nursing homes like. It will slow down the process of fixing any underlying problems, because it permits homes to delay their response while they go through the QIO process. The references to keeping homes' violations out of federal records are also disturbing. Using correct and current federal records is a great way for patients to avoid homes with a record of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse, so it's better to include every violation on record. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I hope patient advocates are following this law closely.

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January 4, 2012

Report Reveals Coroners Often Miss Deaths Attributable to Nursing Home Abuse

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was saddened but not surprised to read a new report detailing how many cases of elder abuse and Pennsylvania nursing home abuse often fall through the cracks. The investigative journalism organization ProPublica published a report Dec. 21 on the rarity of investigations into suspicious deaths of elderly Americans. According to the article, part of the problem is that older people's deaths are not unusual, and therefore not given the scrutiny that would be given to a younger person's death. Coroners may assume that older people died of natural causes without looking into it, especially with nursing home patients. However, the investigators found that coroners are under-funded and rely too heavily on doctors' reports on death certificates. In many states, doctors may sign death certificates without viewing the body, allowing nursing homes to cover up the true reason for a death even when a casual glance at the body reveals it.

That was the case in the death of William Neff, who died at 83 while he was in an assisted living home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When he died, the home told its doctor that "failure to thrive" due to dementia was the cause, and that's what the doctor put on the death certificate. But when Neff's relatives moved his body to a funeral home, the director preparing Neff's body for burial noticed broken ribs and a 16-inch bruise on one side. Rather than continuing preparations, the director contacted the Bucks County coroner's office, which determined that Neff died of a lung puncture caused by one of five broken ribs, caused by some kind of violent impact. A criminal investigation of the home eventually revealed that Neff was beaten to death by home employee Heidi Tenzer, who was later convicted of third-degree murder. Three other employees were convicted of related crimes. In other cases profiled in the article, homes used natural causes to cover up the effects of neglect, including deep, severe bedsores; misuse of antipsychotic drugs; dehydration; infections; and disease.

As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I know any of those conditions would raise serious questions about the nursing home's quality of care and safety. Pressure sores in particular (also known as bedsores) are a serious issue because they require frequent attention and go unattended far more often than they should. The abuse described at the Bucks County nursing home is even more troubling because there's no way that Neff's abuse could be attributed to mistakes or overwork; he was literally beaten to death. To make matters worse, the article reports that Neff had speech problems because of his Alzheimer's, meaning he likely couldn't speak up about any previous abuse. The case resulted in several criminal prosecutions. As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I hope it also sparked a state investigation into the quality of that home's care, in order to protect other vulnerable residents -- and close scrutiny by the families of other residents.

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