L.A. County slow to probe nursing home complaints, state statistics show

Statewide stats show L.A. County lags behind on investigations of nursing home complaints

Statistics released this week on investigations of complaints of abuse, neglect and poor conditions at California nursing homes and other health facilities show Los Angeles County lagging behind other areas of the state.

Los Angeles County is the only county that handles such investigations itself. Elsewhere, the program is run by the state's Department of Public Health. The county's responsibilities will probably be scaled back under a new contract with the state beginning in July. That agreement is expected to provide more money for investigations — but not as much as county officials say they would need to do all the work currently required.

The statistics reported by the state this week for the first time broke down the performance by district. It showed that Los Angeles County took the longest time, on average, to finish investigating complaints of patient mistreatment or inadequate care. Statewide, the average number of days that complaints were open was 255. In Los Angeles County, it was 352. The only other district in the state that approached that number was San Francisco, where the average was 342 days.

Interim Los Angeles County Public Health Director Cynthia Harding wrote in a memo to the county Board of Supervisors on Thursday that because the health facility inspection contract has been chronically underfunded, investigators have been focusing on only the most serious complaints, involving deaths, serious injuries or possible criminal behavior. The less-serious complaints will not be a priority until the county gets more money and staff, she said.

Because the county has been paid less than its share of the statewide workload, "our productivity is not accurately reflected compared to available staffing and resources," Harding wrote. She said that, "given the lack of sufficient resources, [the county] worked from a prioritized work plan and has met or exceeded expectations," she said.

The state data covered the first three quarters of the fiscal year, from last July through the end of March. About 23% of the complaints received statewide about long-term care facilities during that period were in Los Angeles County, but the county accounted for 56% of open complaints. During that period, the average number of days that Los Angeles County took to investigate complaints was 250, compared with a statewide average of 122. Only San Francisco had a longer average time of 260 days.

Los Angeles County also lagged behind in launching investigations of non-high priority complaints. Under state law, investigations are supposed to be initiated within 24 hours of a complaint being filed for serious complaints and within 10 days for lower-priority cases. Los Angeles County launched investigations of serious complaints on time 99% of the time, but started only 89% of less-serious complaint investigations in a timely manner. Harding said in her memo that the issue was "clerical errors with data entry" that have since been corrected.

Michael Connors, with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, called the county's performance as reflected in the report "shockingly inadequate."

"Nursing home residents who are being mistreated can't afford to wait years before their complaints are investigated," he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed state budget for next year would boost funding for Los Angeles County's inspection program from $26.9 million a year to $41.7 million. County officials expect that some of the responsibility for investigating complaints will also be shifted to the state, but the new contract has not been finalized.

A spokesman for the county public health department said the agency is developing an "aggressive recruitment plan" to hire more investigators with the added state money.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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