Minnesota families demand voice in nursing home inquiries

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2013 - 11:08 AM

A state agency is working to address complaints of relatives who say investigations of nursing homes and care facilities shut them out.

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Sheila Van Pelt

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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No evidence of neglect.

Sheila Van Pelt couldn’t believe it when she received the letter from state health investigators in 2011. Her mother had suffered a stroke at an assisted-living facility and later died, and now she wondered: Did they even bother to seriously review the case?

Investigators never formally interviewed her, Van Pelt says, even though she found her mother, with her legs twitching as she suffered convulsions from a severe stroke. No one was ever held accountable for the incident and, she says, investigators didn’t seem interested when she tried to bring information forward.

The Plymouth woman has been on a mission since then to change a state investigative agency that she says is too friendly toward health care facilities and fails to give equal weight to the public.

“I do not believe they see us as respectable sources of reliable information,” Van Pelt said. “They view the facilities as the only source of that information. Until that changes, truthful accounting of what happened will not be known.”

The target of Van Pelt’s concerns is the state Health Department and its Office of Health Facility Complaints, which regulates more than 2,000 licensed health care businesses, including nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and home care agencies. It receives 12,000 complaints and self-reported incidents each year; about 1,000 are investigated and about one in four result in findings of maltreatment or other violations.

Van Pelt scored a victory last month when state health officials acknowledged through a policy change that they need to ensure that families play a role in the agency’s investigations.

Yet some families and attorneys representing patients still think the agency holds information too closely, and are asking if the Health Department is sufficiently accountable to the public. Attorney Mark Kosieradzki, who represents patients in nursing home cases, said in the past year or two, investigations seem more cursory and the resulting reports provide less information.

The agency’s new policy requires investigators to interview a relative of a vulnerable adult in complaints involving nursing homes or other health facilities. The protocol also stresses the importance of communicating with families, returning phone calls and helping ensure that relatives get copies of completed investigative reports.

OHFC director Stella French says the policy is designed to help family members participate when her agency investigates a complaint regarding a loved one. She said there were a couple of cases in the past year that left families feeling they weren’t involved, but that the office’s goal is to ensure they are included.

“Did it happen a hundred percent? I wouldn’t say that,” French said. “That is our goal. We feel this will enhance the quality of the investigations.”

Sometimes ‘fall short’

Deb Holtz, the state ombudsman for long-term care, applauded the new policy because, she said, investigators do sometimes “fall short” of ensuring that they have collected all relevant information. She said it’s a matter of staff resources, not a bias in favor of the care industry.

“I don’t know that they are slanted to the industry,” Holtz said. “I know they listen to the industry. I would hope families and complainants are given the same overall time.”

Those in the care industry don’t see the office as favoring their interests, said Patti Cullen, CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, a trade group.

“If they were too friendly we wouldn’t see the large number of investigations that we currently have,” Cullen said, adding that her members sometimes find the investigations too harsh.

Yet even when investigators find wrongdoing, they have been providing less and less information to the public.

Core information omitted

  • Nursing home investigations
    The Minnesota Department of Health investigates maltreatment reports made against any of the more than 2,000 licensed health care facilities and agencies in Minnesota. Its Office of Health Facility Complaints receives 12,000 complaints per year and investigates about 1,000. They include allegations of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation against nursing homes, home health agencies and other facilities. About one in four results in substantiated findings. Phone: 651-201-4201.
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