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Nursing home woes: Is a fix in the works?
U-T San Diego
Last week, State Auditor Elaine Howle issued another scathing review of the California Department of Public Health. The audit laid out yet again how the agency had been an abject failure at regulating long-term health care facilities and developmental centers helping the disabled, placing the safety and welfare of tens of thousands of Californians at risk.
Howle once again noted that the agency had a massive backlog of complaints about institutions and caregivers that it had failed to review within time limits established in state law. The most recent figure of unresolved complaints, from last April, is 11,000.
These harsh audits and complaints from advocates for the elderly have produced some fallout. The director of the department and his top aide have resigned under fire in recent months. But given that detailed, troubling complaints about poor state regulation of nursing homes have been a constant throughout the 21st century, it’s time to stop blaming bureaucrats and start blaming state leaders.
A 2013 U-T San Diego investigation of assisted-living facilities — which provide cheaper, less extensive care than nursing homes — turned up shocking findings, starting with the deaths of at least 27 county seniors since 2008 due to injuries and neglect. That helped prompt a flurry of legislative activity. Care providers now face tougher requirements and the state Department of Social Services has added new levels of oversight and hired additional inspectors.
It’s time for a similar flurry of activity from the Brown administration and the state Legislature when it comes to making sure nursing home regulations are properly enforced and developmental centers are regularly inspected.
Thankfully, the governor’s 2015-16 budget appears to recognize this need. It includes 237 new positions for the Department of Public Health, and a department spokesman on Friday said in an email that the primary focus of the new hires would be to address complaints and incidents at facilities the agency oversees.
This is welcome news in a state Capitol where the needs of elderly Californians and the developmentally disabled aren’t always much of a priority.
Unfortunately, there still seems to be an unhealthy culture within the Department of Public Health. The latest audit quotes a top official as downplaying the fact that the department has failed to rectify many problems related to patient health and safety that were identified years ago because those involved only two of the more than 200 programs that it oversees. No wonder that Howle wrote in her audit that “Public Health remains a high‑risk agency due to weaknesses in program administration and because it has been slow to implement recommendations.”
But beyond a culture change, the department simply needs more bodies. Aging and developmentally disabled Californians need to have confidence that the health facilities they rely on are safe and adequately regulated. The good news is that help is on the way.