Legislators Put Nursing Home Profits Ahead of Elder Abuse Problems

State becomes battleground in effort to protect America’s elderly from abuse and neglect.

Nursing Home Abuse & the Elderly: Legislators Put Nursing Home Profits Ahead of Abuse Problems
Kay Brubaker (R) holds the hand of her bed-ridden husband, Larry, the victim of a stroke, at their home in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, October 29, 2009. (Photo: Brad Bower/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Despite a series of high-profile nursing home abuse cases in Oklahoma, the legislature there still seems more interested in helping nursing homes avoid elder-abuse lawsuits than it is in saving the state’s elderly from disturbing cruelty.

A shocking instance of abuse was caught on video in April 2012, leading to the arrest of two nursing home attendants at the Quail Creek Nursing and Rehab Center in Oklahoma City. They were accused of repeatedly slapping Eryetha Mayberry, 96, and shoving rubber gloves in her mouth when she objected.

Little did they know the woman’s family had planted a secret camera in her room, fearing that their elderly grandmother was being ill-treated.

Mayberry’s family was shocked by what they discovered. She has since passed away, but the fight continues to make nursing homes safer as more baby boomers age toward needing around-the-clock elder care.

Quail Creek was eventually cited in the incident for failing to perform a background check on its nursing aids. The nursing home’s administrators declined comment Monday.

Incidents like these are, sadly, not isolated in Oklahoma. The state recently ranked 48 in the nation in the quality of its nursing home care in rankings put out by the advocacy group Families for Better Care – receiving an “F” grade for protecting and caring for its nursing home residents.

“The causes for most of the lack of quality care goes back to staffing in nursing homes. What differentiates good states from bad states is adding minutes on the day for additional staffing to ensure residents are safe,” said Brian Lee, who founded Families for Better Care and has served as a Long Term Care Ombudsman for the state of Florida.

Sufficiently background-checking staff is another essential. Oklahoma, says Lee, is abysmal at both.

“Oklahoma represents what’s terribly wrong with nursing home care and oversight in America.”

One would think receiving a highly publicized failing mark from a reputable advocacy group would spur Oklahoma lawmakers into reform.

It hasn’t.

Rather than holding hearings about how to make nursing home residents safer, state lawmakers are currently trying to pass “tort reform” legislation in Oklahoma that would limit the amount of compensation victims of nursing home abuse and neglect can receive. The move prompted protests across the state.

“Where's the sense of urgency to protect the residents instead of protecting the nursing home operators?” asked Wes Bledsoe, local Oklahoma City nursing home advocate, at a recent rally for better care. “[T]oday we are hopeful that people will listen and start paying attention. That we're going to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.” 

The Oklahoma legislature passed a similar law in 2009, but that effort was subsequently thrown out by the state's Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.

Oklahomans are not alone in their desperation for better nursing home care. The state is part of a much bigger battleground to insulate nursing home providers from liability in advance of the Affordable Care Act coming online.

One of the biggest obstacles to better nursing care has been the lack of transparency that allows companies to hide their corporate structures from victims of nursing home abuse. When an injured party seeks to sue the company for reforms, they are only able to go after a shadow LLC, instead of the massive healthcare monoliths that are actually taking in the profits.

This is where the Affordable Care Act came in, granting state ombudsman enhanced powers to unveil nursing home corporate structures, as well as to authorize federal funding to those offices pursue exactly that task.

Unveil the corporate structure, and you allow victims to follow the money all the way to the top. The multibillion-dollar nursing home industry is not pleased with that prospect.

“We’ve seen the nursing home (industry) try to create obstacles,” says Lee.

In Florida, where legislation would have immunized owners from any accountability, and only management companies or licensees would be liable for nursing home neglect, Lee said.

In Kentucky, the nursing home industry is backing the creation of medical review panels for all abuse claims.

“Victimized residents would have to present their case before a supposedly objective board,” Lee said, casting doubt on the efficacy of the panel’s objectivity. “The industry is trying to trip over itself to put up barriers. But they have yet to address the underlying issue: bad care in nursing homes.”

In the end, says Lee, all these obstacles may prove unnecessary, as budget sequestration has done what the nursing home industry could only dream of, by stripping the majority of federal money away from state ombudsman.

That leaves grassroots efforts, like those rallying for reform in Oklahoma, as the best hope for ensuring America’s elderly citizens get treated humanely in the years to come.

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