Nursing homes can be penalized with fines or other sanctions when violations are uncovered by government agencies.  Unfortunately, a decline in penalties does not necessarily indicate a decline in violations — only a decline in crucial oversight needed to curtail Pennsylvania nursing home neglect and abuse.  Penalties issued for nursing home violations have increased in recent years, but, counterintuitive as it sounds, that may actually be a positive development for nursing home safety.  Obviously, the goal should be to have zero violations — but the recent increase in penalties shows that regulation is becoming more aggressive, which is good news after a long period of leniency in which many violations went ignored and unpunished.

Fines for Nursing Homes with Safety Violations Increasing After Period of Decline

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Recent data shows that financial penalties for Pennsylvania nursing homes decreased sharply from 2003, when 171 penalties were issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DoH), to 2012, when only two penalties were issued.  With two exceptions in which monetary penalties increased from the previous year (2007 and 2011), the number of penalties declined consistently until 2012.

Penalties — which could hardly decrease, with only two issued in 2012 — increased in 2013, decreasing slightly in 2014 before rising sharply the following year.  The number of financial penalties issued last year reached the highest point since around 2009, when approximately 30 were issued, but still falls well short of the approximately 90 that were issued in 2003.

Approximately 70 other sanctions in the form of provisional licenses, rather than fines, were also issued in 2003, as were about 10 other penalties involving admission bans or, in the most extreme cases, license revocations.  Unlike financial penalties and, to a lesser extent, provisional licenses — both of which have alternately plunged and soared since 2002 — license revocations and admission bans have remained consistent (and rare) over the past decade, generally hovering in the single digits.

Audit Criticizes PA Dept. of Health’s Former Ban on Anonymous Complaints Against Homes

Is the recent increase in financial penalties and provisional licenses indicative of a sudden quality dip in Pennsylvania nursing homes?  Not necessarily.  Attorney Sam Brooks, who works for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, an organization which provides free representation to low-income Philadelphians, attributes the sharp decline seen around 2012 to reduced oversight under former Governor Tom Corbett, whose administration in 2012 prohibited anonymous complaints against nursing homes.

Kevin Harley, a former Corbett spokesperson, supported the ban as a safety enhancement measure for nursing home residents, arguing it would free up more DoH resources to devote to investigating the most serious problems.  As Harley explained, “The decision to prohibit anonymous complaints was intended to improve reporting to allow the inspectors to investigate real and substantive issues.  Not personnel complaints or HR issues that were commonly received through anonymous means.”

Brooks, however, had a different interpretation.

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“I don’t understand,” he said, “how eliminating the way someone can complain about potential abuse protects nursing home residents.  I just don’t see the rationale in that.”

The ban, which lasted from 2012 to 2014, received renewed attention after being criticized this July by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who described the policy at a news conference as “an action intended to silence critics.”  DePasquale’s nursing home-focused DoH performance audit, which was released July 25, 2016 and covered the period from January 1, 2014 through October 31, 2015, noted 4,062 complaints.

“Through most of the period, until July 2015, DoH rejected anonymous complaints,” the audit stated. “This decision compromised DoH’s ability to receive and investigate all complaint allegations.  DoH has since rescinded this policy — and as result [sic] — complaints received by DoH have increased by 63%.”

The audit was also critical of other DoH policies observed during the investigation period.  After describing the former anonymous complaint rejection policy as “unwise” in its introductory summary to Governor Tom Wolf, the audit also added that “cuts to DoH’s complement caused it to revise certain other complaint-handling policies and procedures, which in turn influenced DoH’s ability to correctly prioritize and respond to complaints it received.  In other areas,” the audit continued, “we found that documentation practices could be improved, as could how DoH communicates certain aspects of its investigation results with complainants.”

The audit also noted, among other findings, “DoH rarely cites facilities for deficient facility staffing” (i.e. nursing home understaffing), “DoH may not be as timely as it should be in responding to certain complaints,” and, “When DoH chooses not to sanction a facility for a deficient practice, it does not document its decision-making, even when resident harm has occurred.”

Contact an Experienced Lawyer Who Handles Nursing Home Abuse Claims in PA and NJ

Hopefully, the DoH will effectively implement at least some of the numerous recommendations featured in the audit.  While it is comforting to know that regulation of nursing homes has gotten more rigorous over the past several years — a trend which will hopefully continue — these improvements do not change the fact that abuse and neglect still bring harm to innocent seniors every day.

If you suspect that your mother, father, or grandparent is being abused or neglected in any way, you should talk to an attorney immediately.  Compensation may be available to your loved one, and, more importantly, their safety may be in jeopardy.  An experienced nursing home abuse lawyer can help get your family member into a safe environment while aggressively pursuing injury compensation on his or her behalf.

To set up a free legal consultation about your parent or grandparent’s nursing home accident claim, call the Wieand Law Firm, LLC at (800) 481-5206.  Attorney Brent Wieand handles a wide array of common violations in elder care facilities, including nursing home falls, bedsores from neglect, and pelvic fractures.

*Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. The Wieand Law Firm, LLC is based in Philadelphia, PA, and proud to serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.*