Brightening the Final Years

Life just got better for thousands of elderly Californians who live in nursing homes. Gov. George Deukmejian has signed a package of bills, almost identical to reforms that he vetoed several months ago, that will improve the care provided at the state's 1,200 facilities.

Most nursing-home patients spend their final days without complaint, but some have been abused or neglected, according to a 1983 report by the state's Little Hoover Commission. That report prompted the new laws.

Nursing homes will operate under stiffer regulations, tougher punishments for violations, and more thorough inspections. Patients are bound to benefit.

One goal of the new laws is to prevent retaliation against patients who complain formally about bad conditions. In the past some patients have been mistreated or turned out for complaining. Discrimination against patients whose bills are paid by the state's Medi-Cal program is also forbidden. That is important, because only 30% of California's patients are private patients.

In addition to the punitive measures, the new laws also provide money to improve nursing-home staffs. Working at a nursing home can be a messy, thankless and low-paying job. As a result, the turnover is high. Soon nursing homes can pay non-administrative workers more--the average pay of $3.75 an hour will be increased by 40 cents--and hire more of them because of an $8.7-million appropriation for this fiscal year in Medi-Cal money, matched by federal funds. More money, an annual appropriation of $87 million, has been allocated for future years to help nursing homes keep experienced workers and attract more qualified workers.

These reforms would have taken effect three months ago if the governor had signed the initial legislation. His veto did not derail the momentum to provide better conditions in nursing homes. Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, long an advocate for the elderly, persevered. State lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, demonstrated that the Legislature can work quickly when it wants to. Better late than never, the new laws are in place, and McCarthy has asked the Little Hoover Commission to keep the pressure on by scheduling new hearings on nursing homes.

More than 100,000 senior citizens live in California's 1,200 nursing homes. If the new regulations are enforced and the laws work as they should, their final years will be a bit more pleasant in the last place that most will call home.

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