An advocacy group and a union sued a Mission Viejo-based operator of California nursing homes this week, alleging that it has consistently understaffed many of its facilities to the detriment of patients. The action involves the largest number of nursing facilities ever included in such a lawsuit, the plaintiffs say.
"Study after study has shown a direct relationship between staffing and the quality of care at a nursing home," said Jennifer Kelly, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 250, which, along with the California Alliance for Retired Americans, filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against Ensign Group Inc.
"There are a lot of examples of this at Ensign facilities," Kelly said. "A large number of their nursing homes over the past year have operated below California's minimum requirements for staffing."
Greg Stapley, a spokesman for Ensign, denied the allegation.
"I've seen the list [of facilities named in the suit] and none of it is accurate," Stapley said. "This is the second time they've filed a lawsuit, and it's just another attempt by this union to harass these facilities and their employees for refusing to unionize."
The lawsuit names half of the 26 nursing homes the company operates in California, including two in Orange County: Victoria Healthcare Center in Costa Mesa and Sea Cliff Healthcare Center in Huntington Beach.
Other Southern California facilities named in the suit include Brookfield Healthcare Center in Downey; Arbor Glen Care Center (formerly Glendora Care & Living Center) in Glendora; Atlantic Memorial Healthcare Center and Shoreline Healthcare Center, both in Long Beach; Panorama Gardens in Panorama City; Claremont Care Center in Pomona; Arroyo Vista Nursing Center in San Diego; and Whittier Hills Healthcare Center in Whittier.
Three Northern California facilities were also named: Cloverdale Healthcare Center in Cloverdale, Ukiah Convalescent Hospital in Ukiah and Northbrook Nursing & Rehab Center in Willits.
The lawsuit alleges that those facilities violated California health and safety codes by failing to maintain minimum staffing during all or part of 2003.
State law requires a minimum of 3.2 skilled nursing hours per resident a day, the suit says, but some Ensign facilities operated with as little as 2.82 hours per resident per day.
"When a home short-staffs, you see an increase in patient injuries or falls, unexpected weight loss, because they have no help eating, and patients who have bed sores or open wounds because they're not being turned every three hours. You also have a higher number of residents strapped into chairs or beds because there isn't enough staff to monitor people who may be at risk for falls," Kelly said.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction requiring the facilities to increase staffing levels, financial restitution for any harm done to residents and possible fines for violating state law.
An earlier lawsuit -- filed against Northern California's Sonoma Healthcare Center, whose workers the union now represents -- was settled out of court, Stapley said.
"We have an excellent reputation for good care and are generally regarded as one of the better operators," he said. "We intend to defend this lawsuit vigorously."