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Nursing homes settle lawsuit

Brea-based operator will pay $2 million to former residents.

August 22, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The operator of 18 skilled nursing homes across Southern California will pay $2 million to former residents in a settlement stemming from a class-action lawsuit that alleged substandard care of elderly patients.

According to the suit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, the care advertised by Brea-based Sun-Mar Health Care Inc. did not reflect problems -- such as inadequate staffing -- found by state regulators.

"These facilities are giving out brochures about this wonderful, superlative care -- one need only look at their regulatory history . . . and see that it's just not true," said attorney Stephen Garcia, who represents the residents.

"Though we do not admit liability, we chose to settle this case because we are, and have been, firmly committed to the well-being of our residents," said Sun-Mar President Irving Bauman in a statement. "Litigation is a long, expensive process that would take our focus away from where it belongs . . . on our residents."

About 4,000 people are part of the class, which covers people who lived in Sun-Mar facilities across Southern California between January 2005 and January 2008. Garcia estimates that only a fifth or so of those people are still alive, but said the intent of the suit was to improve oversight, rather than monetary remuneration.

"It was primarily viewed as an opportunity to alter and change the way care was provided for people who were still in those facilities," he said. "Any leftover money will go toward improving the quality of care in the homes."

Garcia said the homes were plagued by chronic under-staffing and insufficient training. He slammed the California Department of Public Health for lax oversight. The settlement also requires a monitor, chosen by Garcia, to inspect five of the 18 facilities at random each quarter.

State health officials disputed Garcia's criticism.

"Protecting the health and safety of Californians is our highest priority," said agency spokeswoman Suanne Buggy, "All complaints of poor care in nursing homes and hospitals are taken very seriously and investigated."

The lawsuit cited facilities across the region where state regulators noted deficiencies, including Anaheim Health Center, which had 11 state citations between August 2006 and October 2007.

"If everyone had known the regulatory history of these facilities," Garcia said, "they would not have put their mother or father in them."

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susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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