After scathing reports last year showed Pennsylvania routinely failed to detect or punish elder abuse, the state Department of Health is cracking down on lax nursing home inspections.
An investigation by nonprofit Community Legal Services last year found that the department had dismissed 92 percent of the nursing complaints it received. The few remaining cases the department did follow up on were frequently downgraded. Cases where residents died or were severely injured were often classified by state inspectors as “minor incidents.”
The department is now ramping up its enforcement efforts in response, said Dr. Karen Murphy, state health secretary.
“We are taking very seriously our responsibility to protect nursing home residents,” she said. “We consider it to be the mission of the department. And we have increased the way people concerned about nursing home care can communicate with us to address the problem.”
Murphy said fines issued by inspectors are up 200 percent compared with last year and enforcement actions by 160 percent. The department has resumed accepting anonymous complaints, a practice stopped under the Corbett administration, and a state task force is currently examining further reforms for a report due this summer.
Community Legal Services lawyer Sam Brooks, who helped author the report exposing Pennsylvania’s failure to adequately inspect its nursing homes, praised the tougher inspections.
“We have seen the new statistics from the DoH and we’re heartened by it,” he said. “We really believe this is what’s necessary and it’s been a long time coming. We applaud the department, even if there is a lot more work that needs to be done.”
But Brooks added that real change would take more than just steeper or more frequent fines. Brooks says state inspectors need retraining to better detect signs of neglect or abuse.
“Our experience as advocates representing residents in nursing homes, is that we continue to see problems with how complaints are investigated and how violations are found,” he said. “We’re happy that penalties are increasing, but we’re worried that on the ground staff are missing serious violations.”
Brooks also said nursing home residents should also have more of a say in the state’s ongoing reform efforts.
“We need a more intense, nursing home resident-centered strategy,” he said.