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State Sued in Probes of Care Homes

Action says complaints against two nursing facilities were not investigated within the required 10 days, putting patients at risk.

October 19, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Relatives of two former nursing home residents and an advocacy group have sued the state for failing to investigate complaints against nursing homes promptly, alleging the delays exposed elderly patients to abuse and neglect.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Monday, comes after a California health official conceded in a July interview with The Times that the state has often been unable to respond to complaints filed against nursing homes within the 10 working days required by law.

Brenda Klutz, head of the division of the state Department of Health Services that oversees nursing homes, said in the interview that a lack of state funding and inspectors has often kept the state from meeting the 10-day deadline.

"They admit it," said Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a plaintiff in the case. "Weeks and months will go by" before an investigator visits the nursing home to check a complaint, McGinnis said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Nursing homes -- An article in the Oct. 19 California section about delays in state investigations of nursing homes said that, during a 10-month state investigation of her mother's death at a nursing home, officials gave Julie Fudge no information. In fact, she received limited information, including periodic updates on the case.

Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services, said the agency had not yet received the lawsuit and could not comment on it.

In general, however, she said investigations begin within 24 hours in more than 96% of all priority complaints in which there is a threat of imminent death or serious bodily harm.

In other cases, about 40% of the investigations begin within the 10-day limit, she said.

"The department triages the most serious complaints and initiates an investigation as soon as staff is available and resources permit," Brooks said. "We are committed to protecting the safety of residents and nursing homes. It is a top priority."

According to the lawsuit, state investigators waited seven weeks before inspecting the Los Gatos nursing home where Patricia Bryant's mother died. Catherine Ann Bryant died at Terreno Gardens Extended Care shortly after Patricia Bryant learned that a nurse had ignored a doctor's orders on treating a pressure sore, the suit alleged.

It took nearly seven months for the health department to conclude that Bryant's complaint was valid, the suit said.

Beverly Anderson, director of nursing at Terreno Gardens, said she could not comment on the suit.

According to the suit, another plaintiff, Julie Fudge, found her mother with dangerously low oxygen levels at Saratoga Retirement Community in Saratoga. The 93-year-old woman subsequently fell into a coma and died.

Fudge said in an interview that she was not given any information during the 10 months it took to complete the investigation of her May 2004 complaint against the home.

The state said in a letter that inspectors began looking into the complaint on June 8, 2004 -- six days after the 10-day deadline, according to the suit.

According to the suit, the health department ruled it could not verify the complaint. Fudge argued the delayed investigation made verification difficult.

The delays "definitely impede finding anything out," Fudge said. "Sometimes there's a huge turnover in staff, sometimes people forget. When you go in six or eight months later, it's like asking you what you ate for dinner in April. You don't remember."

James Napoli, a lawyer for Saratoga Retirement Community, said he could not comment on the case because of patient privacy rules but said the health department, in general, thoroughly reviews accusations made against nursing homes. "They always have a factual basis for their conclusion," he said.

Fudge said the state probably doesn't have enough inspectors to meet the workload, but, she added, that's no excuse.

"If you have a facility that's caring for very vulnerable people, you need to make sure they're doing it right," Fudge said.

Over the last five years, the number of complaints against nursing homes has increased, from 9,650 in 2000 to 15,512 in 2004, according to the state. But the number of state citations has decreased, from 709 in 2000 to 464 in 2004.

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