State health regulators have eliminated a massive backlog of unresolved complaints alleging abuse and neglect at Minnesota senior care facilities, while fulfilling a promise to dramatically speed up investigations into new complaints.

Minnesota started the year with 3,147 reports of abuse and maltreatment that needed to be investigated, including incidents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The backlog had become so severe that it sometimes took state investigators months or even years to complete investigations, angering relatives of abuse victims and undermining criminal prosecutions, according to a Star Tribune report published last November.

Amid pressure from family members of abuse victims, the Office of Health Facility Complaints (OHFC), a division of the Minnesota Department of Health, has finally cleared the massive backlog, while also instituting a new electronic system for processing the roughly 400 new allegations it receives each week.

As a result of these changes, the agency has slashed by nearly two-thirds the average time it takes to complete investigations, giving elder abuse victims and their families a speedier resolution to their cases.

“This is a significant milestone,” Gilbert Acevedo, assistant state health commissioner, said in an interview. “We want family members to know that when they submit cases to us that we take them extremely seriously and we will respond to them in a timely fashion.”

Last year, as the backlogs came to light, OHFC staff described a dysfunctional office where new complaints went unread for months and stacked up 2 feet high on employees’ desks. In some cases, files would get lost or go permanently missing within the OHFC’s antiquated, paper-based processing system.

Gov. Mark Dayton responded by giving the much larger Department of Human Services (DHS) sweeping new powers over the OHFC under an interagency agreement. DHS sent a team of staff to help sort through thousands of unreviewed cases and to develop a new electronic document management system.

State officials said eliminating the giant backlog is significant because it frees up time for OHFC’s 55 staff to address new complaints more quickly. Timing is critical in elder abuse cases because the victims often suffer from dementia and may forget critical details. “This clears the deck so that we can focus on current cases,” Acevedo said. “We want to make sure we never get back into a situation where we have a backlog.”

On average, it took the OHFC nearly 140 days to complete maltreatment investigations in the last fiscal year — more than double the 60 days allowed under state law, according to a highly critical report early this year by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Since April, the agency has been closing maltreatment investigations within 58 days, on average, according to the Department of Health.

While turnaround times have improved, state health officials acknowledged the need for improvement. The OHFC substantiated maltreatment — or determined that abuse or neglect actually occurred — in just 28 percent of the cases it completed during the first seven months of 2018. The remainder were found to be inconclusive or unsubstantiated, often because of inadequate or conflicting evidence. In previous years, the numbers were even lower, with the OHFC substantiating maltreatment less than 20 percent of the time, state data show.

“Each and every one of these reports is indicative of something that is going wrong and should warrant an extra concerted effort to prevent future incidents,” said Suzanne Scheller, an elder abuse attorney in Champlin.

Reformers aren’t quitting

At a press briefing Wednesday, Dayton praised the commissioners of the departments of Health and Human Services for their efforts at clearing out the backlog of maltreatment complaints. “That’s the way it should have been all along,” he said. “But the fact that they eliminated a backlog of over 3,000 [complaints] was really, really impressive and they deserve credit for that.”

Even so, both state health officials and elder care advocates said they will continue to press for much broader reforms to state laws for protecting seniors.

The 2018 Legislature did not pass a package of measures to safeguard seniors from abuse, despite bipartisan support among lawmakers and an aggressive push by a coalition of senior groups and relatives of elder abuse victims.

The groups are still seeking greater transparency of maltreatment reports for victims and their families; stronger safeguards against arbitrary evictions and retaliation by facilities; and a licensing system for the state’s fast-growing assisted-living industry, which now serves twice as many people as nursing homes but operates under far less regulatory scrutiny. They also want to clarify Minnesota law to give people the right to place cameras inside senior facilities to monitor care of their loved ones.

“The fact that the state is getting 400 [elder abuse] complaints a week is evidence that the need for reform is even greater today than ever,” said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a volunteer group seeking better care for seniors.