Nursing Home Abuse Growing Problem

posted on:
May 29, 2002

author:
Staff

A congressional investigation revealed elderly people were abused in nearly one-third of the nation’s nursing homes in the past two years.

Nursing home owners in Alabama deny the problem is widespread and say greedy lawyers create many allegations of abuse and neglect. But NBC13’s Melissa Pace talked with an Alabama woman who says the abuse is real.

One Birmingham family NBC13 spoke with says they know the answer to that debate firsthand. For the past year they say they’ve been fighting for their loved one’s final days to be peaceful and dignified.

To protect her identity we will call this woman Jane. Her mother had a stroke last year. She was placed in a local nursing home. Jane’s concerns began immediately.

“My mom was not being turned, not being bathed,” she said.

Jane’s mother eventually developed a bedsore. Jane has written letter after letter over the past year, detailing problems and searching for answers.

She met with staff members hoping to correct the problems. The home responded by saying they don’t believe in empty promises and want to find solutions.

“Nothing has changed,” Jane said. “Not one of the things they promised has cleared up. In my opinion, they escalated.”

Jane says she usually finds her mother lying in soiled gowns. Last week, Jane brought her home video camera to her mother’s room. She didn’t record any signs of neglect on camera, but what she saw as she entered her mother’s room before the camera was rolling devastated her.

“They had nothing on my mother, no sheet, no nothing, just bear skin,” she said. “The door was wide open, no curtain drawn, no privacy.”

NBC13 contacted the nursing home last week. They refused to comment on patient issues but did say they checked into the complaints, corrected problems, and feel both parties are now satisfied. Jane disagrees.

“It’s really heartbreaking to walk in there and hear patients calling for help or buzzers ringing and no answer,” Jane said. “It’s really devastating.”

On April 1, Jane went a step further and complained to the health department.

“I still have not received a response,” she said.

And she may not for years. Just as 90 percent of the nation’s nursing homes are understaffed, Alabama’s Department of Health’s complaint department is understaffed. As a result, there’s a significant backlog.

From 1998 to 1999, there are still 200 outstanding complaints of abuse and neglect.

In 2000 and 2001, the department received 2,237 complaints — 720 have still not been investigated. So far this year, 899 complaints have been made and only 196 have been investigated and closed.

A spokesperson for the division says there are simply not enough state investigators to handle the number of complaints.

There are other agencies out there to get help.

Marie Tomlin is Alabama’s Ombudsmen — it’s a state-funded program to help patients and family members resolve problems without going to court.

Last year, her department investigated 657 complains of neglect and abuse. Tomlin insits attorneys are used unnecessarily far too often

“There are an awful lot of lawsuits,” Tomlin said. “Facilities are having to spend a long time on lawsuits rather than spending time taking care of residents. “

Attorney Steve Baker says the lawsuits he files are necessary.

“I’d like for there not to be a need for my job because if there is not a need for my job that means residents in nursing homes are being taken care of,” Baker said.

But for families members like Jane, they don’t want a lawsuit; they just want some answers and results.

“Other than what I’m doing, what can I do? I feel helpless,” she said. One nursing home spokesperson NBC13’s Melissa Pace spoke with off camera says folks like Jane are encouraged by “jackpot” lawyers to file suit against the nursing home. As a result, some facilities are losing thousands

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