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Injunction phase of Skilled Healthcare suit continues
Former nurse's assistant for Eureka facilities testifies in court

Times Standard
By Matt Drange
June 24, 2010

The court trial involving Skilled Healthcare Group, Inc. continued Wednesday, with the Humboldt County District Attorney calling a former CNA of the Eureka Healthcare and Rehabilitation center to testify in court.

Vali McGrath worked at the Eureka facility -- one of 22 facilities owned by Skilled Healthcare being sued in a class-action lawsuit -- for over a year. She quit her job as a certified nursing assistant last week after she did not get the help from administration she felt was necessary to provide adequate patient care.

"I told the nurse on duty that if they didn't give me another CNA, I would walk out," said McGrath. "I felt it was the only choice I had."

McGrath detailed the events of the morning of June 16, when she said that after another CNA called in sick, there were only two people to feed and take care of 29 residents. McGrath is a single mother with three kids, and could lose her license as a CNA for quitting in the middle of her shift.

"I did the best to my ability. The reason I stayed so long was the people in the beds," she said. "These people rely on you, and when you can't take care of them and give them the treatment they deserve ... it's heart-breaking."

McGrath was formerly a CNA at Granada Healthcare and Rehabilitation, one of five local nursing homes in Humboldt County that are owned by Skilled Healthcare, before transferring to the Eureka facility. McGrath said that she knew she wanted to work as a nurse after taking care of her mother, who was diagnosed with emphysema and congestive heart failure.

"If you really believe in something, you've got to follow through with it," said McGrath, who added that quitting was not a decision she made on a whim, but rather the final straw of something that had been building since she started work at the facility. "I walked out and fifty pounds of stress lifted off my shoulders."

The testimony was part of the injunction phase of the lawsuit that began this week and focuses on the events after the class-action lawsuit, which spans from 2003 to 2009. The injunction does not involve the jury process.

There are two issues in the case now, one being the nursing hours per patient day (ppd), which is the hours of direct care each patient is supposed to receive on a daily basis. The other is whether or not Skilled Healthcare Group and subsidiary Skilled Healthcare LLC are one entity. The distinction could prove to be important if the jury finds that the company acted with malice, oppression or fraud, which could result in additional punitive damages in the form an injunction mandating Skilled Healthcare maintain staffing levels consistent with the law.

Charlene Harrington, a professor of nursing and sociology at the University of California at San Francisco, testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in March. She said that other states such as Florida and Maine have much higher standards in terms of ppd levels -- some as high as 4.9.

"It's a laughable standard," said Harrington of the current California statute passed in 2000 that mandates 3.2 ppd. "It's completely inadequate. California needs to just bite the bullet."

Harrington said that an injunction would be a good start to force nursing homes to at least meet the minimum staffing requirement. While the jury continues to deliberate on the class-action lawsuit that represents some 32,000 patients, it will be up to Judge Bruce Watson to determine if any additional punitive damages are awarded as part of an injunction in the case.

The court trial will continue on Friday when lawyers for Skilled Healthcare will call another witness to the stand. In the meantime, McGrath, who returned to the Eureka facility on Tuesday to say her good-byes, will continue her search for a job.

"This is a small part of a much bigger problem," said McGrath. "Hopefully my voice makes some kind of difference."

Matt Drange can be reached at 441-0514 or