NURSING HOMES: GAO Criticizes Complaint Response
In a second General Accounting Office report in the last week criticizing the nation's regulation of nursing homes, investigators told the Senate Special Committee on Aging yesterday that federal and state officials often ignore for weeks or months complaints of abuse and neglect. The committee also heard from relatives of abused nursing home residents that sometimes complaints involving deaths receive less attention than complaints involving live persons. "The unresponsiveness to complaints is unacceptable. Complaints are the best recourse for those who have received poor nursing home care," Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) said in a written statement (release, 3/22). The "highly critical" report berates states for "understating the seriousness of complaints and setting up procedures that may limit problems." It also faults HCFA "for failing to make complaint investigation a high priority and not providing states with proper guidance," the Baltimore Sun reports. The report, which focused on Maryland, Michigan and Washington state, concludes that delays in investigating complaints "can prolong situations in which residents may be subject to abuse [and] neglect resulting in serious care problems" (Roche/Green, 3/23).
David Seckman, acting president of the American Health Care Association, said inspectors often focus on "technical violations posing no jeopardy to residents" and that government officials often seemed more eager to discipline negligent homes than to work with them (Pear, New York Times, 3/23). In a written response to the GAO report, Carol Benner, director of the division of licensing and certification in the Maryland health department, blamed the delays on staff shortages and a series of "seemingly well intentioned," but burdensome Clinton administration initiatives (Sun, 3/23). Kathleen Wilbur, director of Michigan's Department of Consumer and Industry services, admitted the state took a long time to look at complaints, but said the delays were caused by staffing shortages (Wendland, Detroit Free Press, 3/23). HCFA Deputy Administrator Michael Hash acknowledged that the agency needs "stricter standards for the prompt investigation of serious complaints" and pointed to new, tougher rules that HCFA released last week. The Times reports that HCFA officials refused to testify at yesterday's hearing, saying senators "violated protocol by allowing ordinary citizens to testify prior to officials from the executive branch." Senators from both parties called HCFA's behavior "petty and unreasonable," suggesting that it showed officials are not serious about responding to consumer complaints (Times, 3/23).