State officials overhaul nursing home care

Sunday, December 4, 2011

By Dan Petrella and Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess.org

In July 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law two bills that introduced broad reforms for the state’s nursing homes.

The laws strengthened the screening process to keep residents with histories of violent crimes separate from vulnerable, elderly residents; instituted tougher quality and staffing requirements; upped fines for violations; increased the number of state inspectors by nearly 50 percent; and added new requirements for quicker reporting of fraud, neglect and abuse, among other changes.  

The reforms were prompted by a 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation that showed major flaws in the state’s oversight of long-term care facilities.

Among the newspaper’s findings were crimes being committed by younger residents with violent histories against older, often defenseless residents; residents being given psychotropic drugs without appropriate medical diagnoses; and nursing homes failing to notify police when registered sex offenders move in.

The Illinois Department on Aging now requires all nursing homes to fill out a Consumer Choice Information Report, which are available to the public. The reports answer general questions as well as specifics pertaining to each nursing home.

The reforms are still in the process of being implemented. 

Minimum staffing levels, for example, will increase in 2012 from 2.7 hours of nursing and personal care each day for skilled care residents to three hours, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

What has changed is the increase in the number of nursing home surveyors.

The state now has about 45 more surveyors than it did two years ago, Arnold said.

This has been a plus for the nursing home industry, said Tami Wacker, operations manager and regional ombudsman with the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging.

More surveyors means quicker responses to complaints and better identification of problems, she said.

At the very least, the reforms have highlighted an often-ignored population, she said.

“Too often this population in the nursing homes is forgotten about until something happened,” Wacker said. Now, “we’re seeing more people engaged, seeing people call us more.”