After spending the past year visiting more than 100 nursing homes across the United States, I am sickened but not surprised to hear of the avoidable horrors people in facilities in Florida and Texas have suffered from hurricanes Harvey and Irma: most recently eight dead near Miami. Even on normal days many people in nursing homes face grave risks.
While my research focused on the use of antipsychotic drugs in people with dementia as “chemical straightjackets,” I encountered other types of abuse and neglect in many of the 109 facilities I visited. Residents and their families described abuse, isolation, and repeated falls. On one unannounced visit, I encountered an older man helplessly splayed on the floor, naked – as staff walked by with food trays. One simply said, “Again?”
Many who work in nursing homes are dedicated, skilled professionals. However, they control most aspects of life for people inside, which can be a real danger when government oversight is inadequate (as it usually is). As one nursing home administrator in Miami told me: “That’s up to us to decide if we’re violating their rights.”
The facility outside Miami where eight residents died last week has been cited for 33 deficiencies since 2014 for noncompliance with federal regulations. The sheer number of those citations seems to show that these tags and small associated fines have not deterred the facility from further noncompliance. Meanwhile the industry is lobbying for deregulation and weaker enforcement of such regulations. It has successfully pushed for lesser financial penalties to attach for many instances of noncompliance with the law and is pressing for delayed implementation of Obama-era regulations that will strengthen protections for people in nursing facilities. As the New York Times points out, the new rule includes measures that might have saved lives last week: ensuring emergency power sources are able to maintain safe temperatures, for example.
Harvey and Irma have underscored the importance of protecting people who live in nursing facilities. Instead of caving to lobbyists and dismantling critical regulations, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services should improve enforcement so that no more people in nursing homes end up dying for no good reason.