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Nursing Home Patients Need Advocates : A Report on O.C. Facilities Shows That State Inspectors Could Do Their Jobs Better

In many nursing homes, fewer than half the patients have friends and family who visit and keep tabs on conditions. That means it is up to government inspectors to be sure that laws are met and that stroke victims, Alzheimer’s patients and others in distress are treated well.

The state auditor general investigated nursing homes in Orange County after a private nonprofit organization that monitors conditions complained about poor treatment of elderly residents in county homes. The auditor general’s recently released report on the probe shows there is vast room for improvement. Now state inspectors must improve their own performance and ensure that conditions get better.

The report found that state health inspectors often were tardy in responding to complaints about nursing homes and levied penalties that were too light for serious offenses. Although there have been improvements in recent years, the Orange County office of the state Department of Health Services still is not using its power effectively, the report said. That must change.

In many cases, taxpayers pick up the bills of nursing home patients through Medicare or Medi-Cal. It is expensive to provide care for such patients--the tab for a patient whose family is paying often runs $100 a day. Medi-Cal payments, while less, are still hefty. Taxpayers deserve to have their dollars spent well, and patients deserve good treatment and respect.

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The auditor general’s report found that local inspectors often down-graded disciplinary action against nursing homes found guilty of serious breaches of state and federal laws. That is inexcusable. Care givers must be held responsible when they fail to fulfill their responsibilities.

In one case, a facility was issued two citations of the second-most serious kind when a patient’s life was threatened by the home’s failure to administer insulin and coordinate his diet, the report said. Only after advocates for nursing home patients protested the weakness of the reprimands--a rare occurrence--were the citations upgraded to the most serious category, with a stiff fine.

The auditor general’s investigation and report were prompted by a public hearing last year chaired by then-Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach). The procedure is a valuable example of how legislators can well serve their constituents.

The Legislature should see to it that the deficiencies noted in the report are corrected. Nursing home patients need as many advocates as they can get.

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