Nursing home bill debated in Senate


A lobbyist for Maryland nurses sharply criticized state health officials yesterday for what he saw as their efforts to gut a bill to require notification of families when nursing home patients get substandard care.

Rob Hendrickson, who represents the Maryland Nursing Association, said he was "appalled" at a compromise proposed by the health officials during a hearing yesterday before the Senate Finance Committee.

"They're playing games," said Hendrickson, adding that state health officials gave their backing a year ago to a stronger measure.

The allegations came as the legislative panel was hearing testimony on a bill to require state health officials to notify patients and their families when state inspectors determine that patients have been adversely affected due to failures to comply with state and federal rules.

Punctuating the testimony was the recent case of an 89-year-old woman who was fed to death in a Baltimore nursing home. As Hendrickson recounted, the woman's family only learned what had happened from reading an article in the newspaper.

The unidentified woman died at the Villa St. Michael Nursing Home late last year when a feeding tube was left running continuously for hours. The nursing home was fined $7,500 as a result of the incident.

Hendrickson said even the patient's death certificate - which listed the cause of death as heart disease - served to hide the truth from the family. The death certificate, he said, made no mention of the medical mishap, which caused the liquid nutrient to explode from the woman's mouth.

Also appearing at the hearing was Susan Ueberroth, who said her grandmother was injured and abused while a patient in an Arnold nursing home. Ueberroth said she never got notification from the state even though her grandmother's poor care was documented extensively in state inspection reports.

"There needs to be some accountability," said Ueberroth displaying a picture of her late grandmother's bruised arms.

Patients "have no protection. The elderly are treated like a throw-away society," she added.

Too burdensome

Before the start of the hearing, state health officials proposed amending the bill from Sen. George W. Della Jr. so that the notification requirement would only be triggered in cases where it could be proven that patients suffered physical harm.

"People have a right to know when a loved one is harmed," said Carol Benner, director of the Office of Health Care Quality in the state health department. But, she added, requiring family notification for every violation would be too burdensome.

Calling the blanket notification requirement in the bill "vague and ambiguous," Benner said that it could force letters to be sent out when a patient "didn't get a shower" or "the food was cold."

Benner acknowledged that a year ago her agency backed a tougher version of the bill identical to the one Della proposed.

Representatives of the nursing home industry also opposed the bill in yesterday's hearing, saying that there are numerous notifications required by the federal government.

Mark Woodard, lobbyist for the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, said the General Assembly should delay action on the bill and adopt a general notification standard on medical errors that would apply to all types of health facilities.

Clifton Porter, representing Manor Health Care, said his company as a matter of policy always informs the families of patients of any changes in a patient's health status.

'I'm baffled'

Della, who has sponsored a similar measure for at least three years, expressed exasperation at Benner's comments and the industry opposition.

"Then what's wrong with this bill if you already do it? I'm baffled," the Baltimore Democrat said. "It's absolutely embarrassing. What is so awful about informing the family? In other words, you want to keep it a secret."

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