Jim Patterson wrote an enlightening commentary for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon about the widespread abuse and neglect in long term care facilities.  Below are excerpts:

Every day an elderly resident in an assisted living facility or nursing home in Oregon is neglected or abused. Usually little is done to stop it.

If a resident or family member reports neglect or abuse to their local Adult and Protective Services agency, chances are the facility won’t be fined, as allowed by law. If a fine is levied by the state Department of Human Services, it is usually only a few hundred dollars, which most for-profit long-term care companies have written into their budgets as one of the costs of doing business.

In short, the system for protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens isn’t working well due to bureaucratic inertia, profit-driven long-term care facilities, and legislators who care more about other issues.

While sexual assaults are one of the worst kinds of senior abuse, countless other abuses occur in facilities on a daily basis. I was a volunteer certified long-term care ombudsman for 2½ years, and on almost every visit to facilities in Lane County observed problems such as residents with bedsores, unchanged sanitary underwear, and colorless and tasteless meals. I learned about theft of residents’ personal property, occasional dirty kitchens, well-meaning but poorly trained staff (and a few who weren’t well-meaning), underpaid young facility directors who had little experience in the business, and medication mistakes — which can lead to death.

In three facilities I saw demented, sexually predatory male residents, and missed by a day seeing one of these residents shot to death by an offended fellow resident who then killed his wife and himself. This happened at the Alpine Court Memory Care Facility in Eugene.

From November 2009 through April 2011, Lane County Adult and Protective Services received 866 complaints about incidents of neglect or abuse in long-term care facilities under its jurisdiction. Of these, 44 percent were substantiated by APS caseworkers and passed on to the state DHS, which contracts with APS to do the investigations in the facilities. Of those reviewed by the state during this 18-month period, 28 percent of the 44 percent sent on to the state were upheld by DHS. Of the 28 percent substantiated by the state, 20 percent resulted in fines.

Thus, out of a total of 866 complaints, only 22 were found severe enough to incur a fine.

The Oregon Health Care Association is the main lobbying group for the for-profit long-term care industry in Oregon. It has already convinced our legislators this year that increasing those penalties would be bad for business.

One bright spot in this depressing picture is the state Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. The office’s staff of deputies and its volunteers across the state are committed to advocating for seniors and their rights. But at a meeting in May with DHS officials, the ombudsman’s office was told that imposing fines doesn’t do any good because they only amount to a few hundred dollars. Instead, DHS said it would go after the few “bad apples” in the industry. That may be why DHS regularly reverses a significant number of findings of sustainability of neglect or abuse by the Lane County agency.

What can be done about this mess? I suggest the following:

When you hear of neglect or abuse, report it to the Lane County Adult and Protective Services office in Eugene. Also call the state Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. If it’s a criminal matter, call the police.

Call Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office in Salem and demand more rigorous enforcement by DHS of the existing laws against facilities that neglect or abuse their residents. The governor has recently appointed Erinn Kelley-Siel as director of the Department of Human Services.

Call your state representative and senator, and ask that they change the law in the 2012 legislative session to impose much stiffer penalties on an industry that, according to the evidence, puts profits above the well-being of the people they are supposed to serve and protect.

To grow old and have to go into a facility, and then not to feel safe or protected or well-cared for in the place where you live, is demeaning at best and terrifying at worst. Public outcry can change this.


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