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County health department betrays respect our elders deserve: Editorial
Eldercare wasn’t even a word until recently. For those with aging parents, it’s not hard to suss out what it means. As a society, we should take tips from Asia and Europe and not farm out so many of the responsibilities.
But as it is, many older Americans not fully able to take care of themselves wind up not in the spare bedroom or in a nicely appointed granny flat in the bosom of an extended family, but rather in what we somewhat euphemistically refer to as nursing homes or rest homes.
Unfortunately, we now know these vulnerable people are not having their care overseen as it should be by Los Angeles County officials.
At the best of these nursing facilities, older folks who have been ill being nursed back to health by highly trained medical professionals is indeed the order of the day. Appropriate rest is indeed what is made accessible in clean, well-lighted places. Even the food is good at the best of California’s nursing homes. Residents can thrive and live full, socially active lives among their peers.
Anyone who has visited one of the dark torture-chambers that are these homes at their worst knows that precious little nursing is performed and that little rest is to be had for the seniors who are treated more like inmates than like patients.
Countries in which there is more respect for the elders among us — automatic respect; respect that comes from a desire to learn and an understanding that with age comes wisdom — would be absolutely appalled at the conditions in the worst of America’s nursing homes, which includes all too many of them. Dark hallways, dingy carpets, barely clothed men and women moaning in their beds or slumped in chairs in some sad lounge ... it’s not a situation that becomes a great society.
Since all too many of these nursing-home residents get all too few visits from family or friends, we have also farmed out to government the job of ensuring that safe conditions prevail in our nursing homes. Here in California, that mostly means state health officials are responsible. But in L.A. County, the work is performed by officials of our county health departments acting as agents of the state.
We’d like to believe that this very important work is performed diligently and well. Perhaps in great part it is. But as a report our newspapers published last week in partnership with the nonprofit Kaiser Health News showed, L.A. County health officials, faced with a backlog of health and safety complaints, told their inspectors to close some cases without fully investigating them out of mere bureaucratic expedience rather than concern for our state’s elders least able to care for themselves.
That’s an inhumane tragedy in our midst.
The effort to get cases off the books by simply declaring them dealt with — known as the “Complaint Workload Clean Up Project” — has been going on since at least the summer of 2012, according to internal memoranda sent to managers and inspectors by county Department of Public Health supervisors.
When reporter Anna Gorman contacted the state, the California Department of Public Health said it did not approve the practice and has ordered L.A. County officials to “immediately discontinue” it.
Later in the week, the county Health Department tried to have it both ways in its own formal reply, at first claiming that there is in fact no investigation backlog, and then in practically the same breath acknowledging the problem and kicking the blame upstairs: “Due to inadequate state funding, the level of local inspection personnel is insufficient. This has resulted in the county falling behind in developing the extensive written reports for some completed investigations where one or more violations was identified.”
Appropriately called on the carpet at an emergency hearing Tuesday with the county Board of Supervisors, county health officials acted as if the problem were only a technicality involving not completing mere paperwork, with energy instead expended on more courageous investigations. Advocates for the elderly reacted with skepticism to that claim, saying that a complete report is essential to the process. “It is unbelievable to me that they investigated and didn’t complete them,” said nursing home reform advocate Michael Connors.
Good for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas for calling for a thorough audit of the Health Department’s nursing-home oversight, and good for the full board for approving the audit. May it ferret out further abuses if they exist, and may it help better the lives of Southern Californians who deserve the best care in the world.