by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
October 21, 2002
A DIFFERENT KIND OF P.O.W.
SAN DIEGO -- Starvation, dehydration, and bedsores are daily occurrences at these hellholes. The weak and helpless are beaten and often abused, and some are even raped. Are we talking of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps? No, but right here in ours - and to a different kind of POW: our own elderly parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters and friends in nursing homes.
Elder neglect and abuse in skilled nursing homes must become the next frontier for champions of human rights in this country. Much like child abuse was the dirty little secret of a few decades ago, institutionalized elder abuse has been ignored and tolerated for years. But that is changing, thanks to some ground breaking journalistic work on the part of mainstream publications like The American Reporter, U.S. News and World Report and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Recently, the latter two have published in-depth articles providing a bird's eye view of how things really are inside the elder care business called nursing homes. This paper was the very first to dedicate a regular column to nursing home issues.
None too soon. According to these reports tens of thousands of our mother's and father's, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles are dying preventable deaths each year behind closed doors.
One of the Post-Dispatch articles tells of four elderly women who "baked to death from soaring temperatures" in April of last year when the air was broken and ignored are faclity. The facility ended up paying a $43,517 fine with no convictions of crimin the c
There are tales of "painful deaths" and families left behind tormented by loss. Of patients left to lay in urine drenched, feces caked linens; of bedsores tunneling to the bone; of bowel impactions and "gross septic shock."
Of course many in the nursing home industry will complain that such horror stories are either exaggerated or generated in the reimbursement gap created by insufficient Medicare/Medi-Cal funding. It's hard to take these complaints seriously when these very same gaps can generate both decreased staffing for patients and simultaneous millions for CEO's in the larger nursing home chains.
To many of us, veterans of the nursing home wars, this all comes as no shock. Many of us have been fighting this battle for years. Some of us lost our jobs when we spoke up about conditions. Along with recent reports like these that educate the American people on the deplorable situation taking place daily in every city in this country, there have been breakthroughs.
The Elder Justice Act of 2002 sponsored by Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which "calls for law enforcement to work with the health and social service agencies that have traditionally fought alone against neglect," was an important one.
But the most critical grassroots change in the pandemic of elder neglect and abuse at skilled nursing facilities are the many Internet sites serving as national data repositories that monitor incidents of elder abuse and neglect and such quality care indicators as survey results, statistics on direct patient-care hours, and the amount of money spent per patient for daily care.
Websites like "Friend of the Family" lists nursing home survey results and also violations found at nursing homes across the country. The federal U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have another site to monitor homes. But my absolute favorite is one maintained by the California Healthcare Foundation called California Nursing Home Search and located at http://www.calnhs.org. With the information at this site, the public can finally get an honest "read" on the care for our loved ones that will be provided when the nursing homes' doors close behind them. This weekend, I went through a search of most all the homes in San Diego to compare indicators of quality care, and the results were disheartening. Research on just one major American city validated what the foundation has cited; that nearly 50 percent of our skilled nursing homes are deficient in meeting minimum nurse staffing levels. Out of the 60 nursing homes in the San Diego area, nearly 30 of them are out of compliance with minimum state standards for staffing (3.2 hours a day per patient). Of those, most are slightly under the minimum but several were well below -- and three homes were in what I would consider "extreme danger" zones.
I sat recently at one of those very homes, across the table from the administrator and director of nurses, who - while threatening my license for calling their bluff on poor care - indignantly told me that their patient-staffing ratio was "well above the state standard."
With public information like that provided on these invaluable sites, we can verify for ourselves a nursing home's track record and see if supports their claims to "quality care" - or is just empty rhetoric.
Empty, but potentially deadly, rhetoric, I might add.
Cindy Hasz is a nurse and writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com