Published On: Fri, Dec 4th, 2015

Nursing Home Abuse Needs to be a Priority for the Federal Government

The quality of care in nursing homes deserves to be better. If you look around and listen to the news stories and lawsuits about elder abuse in this country, it’s clear that the federal government needs to step in. Well, it looks like they may finally be taking control of the situation – or at least making an attempt to. Sources say the federal government is contemplating safeguards that would regulate the way nursing homes present residents with arbitration agreements.

Restructuring Arbitration Agreements

There have been many “wins” for nursing home residents over the past year. Just recently, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill into law that allows families of nursing patients to install surveillance cameras in the living areas of residents. This was a monumental step forward and now provides some level of deterrence against abuse and neglect in Illinois. The hope is that similar laws will be adopted in the other 49 states.

Perhaps we’re approaching an even bigger win, though. This time it involves the potential restructuring of the use of arbitration agreements in nursing homes.

Many nursing homes ask residents to sign binding arbitration agreements when being admitted to their facilities. The problem is that these agreements are often lost in a stack of other documents and essentially limit the rights of residents to file lawsuits in instances of abuse or neglect.

photo Will O'Neill via Flickr

photo Will O’Neill via Flickr

Just ask Dean Cole’s family. According to this NPR article, Cole lost 20 pounds and went into a coma within two weeks of being admitted to a Minnesota nursing home. After being rushed to the hospital, it was discovered that he’d become seriously dehydrated. While he did survive the immediate situation, he was unable to fully recover and passed away within the month.

Because of the arbitration agreement he and his wife Virginia Cole had signed, the claim for wrongful death never went to court. It was delegated to three private arbitrators who charged a whopping $60,750 for their services. After all of the fees and payments, his wife walked away with less than $20,000.

Government Set to Review Arbitration Agreements

While arbitration agreements are independent of the actual abuse and neglect that occurs in nursing homes, it’s obvious that a restructuring of these agreements would require nursing home operators to place a bigger emphasis on proper protocol. If they know they’re facing million-dollar lawsuits, as opposed to $20,000 settlements, they’ll be more likely to focus on curbing abuse and neglect.

And to those who are unaware, elder abuse is a very real problem. A recent study suggests 7.6-10.0 percent of those surveyed experienced abuse in the prior year. It’s also believed that only 1 out of 14 cases of elder abuse are ever brought to the attention of authorities.

There are many root causes to nursing home abuse. Understaffing, poor work conditions, improper hiring procedures, and other causes are quite pervasive. And while revisiting industry requirements about arbitration agreements may not change these situations, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Change is Coming

How fast reform is coming is unknown, but it’s clear that lawmakers are fed up with the amount of abuse and neglect that’s taking place in nursing homes across America. While there are a number of safeguards that need to be put in place – including following the lead of Illinois – reviewing arbitration agreements is a start.

Terms that require residents to resolve disputes in secret forced arbitration proceedings help nursing homes to keep serious health and safety violations under wraps for too long,” says Christine Hines, Legislative Director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “On the other hand, restoring residents’ access to justice will increase nursing homes’ incentive to provide better care to residents, which ultimately will save health care costs.”

Guest Author: Lolita Di

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