Opinion: Bill To Protect Oklahoma Nursing Home Residents From Abuse, Neglect Shot Down Quickly

I’d Like to Know Why

I want to know what really happened with a recent bill that would have given Oklahoma nursing home residents much greater protections against abuse and neglect.

Oklahoma House Bill 2901 was recently introduced by state Rep. Richard Morrissette, a Democrat representing south Oklahoma City, but the bill seemed to be dead on arrival. Rep. David Dank, a Republican representing northwest Oklahoma City, refused to allow the bill to even be considered by the Long-term Care and Senior Services Committee he leads.

Is this a case of partisan politics getting in the way of doing the right thing? Is this a case of financial interest trumping moral obligation? I’d like to know.

Before I say anything more about HB2901, let me set the stage with four important facts about the daily lives of Oklahoma nursing home residents:

1. Most nursing home residents never have a visitor. Various agencies put the percentage at 50% to as high as 85% who never get a visit.

2. Many nursing home residents have no family members to visit them or look after them. Parents and siblings are no longer living; children have moved away; some have no children.

3.  Many (certainly not all) Oklahoma nursing homes provide substandard care and/or fail to protect their residents from abuse. One 2013 national study gave Oklahoma nursing homes an F grade. Nursing Home Compare, a service of the federal Medicare program, gives one third of Oklahoma nursing facilities — exactly 100 out of 310 facilities — a dismal 2-star or 1-star rating on a 5-star scale. There are a lot of bad nursing homes in Oklahoma.

4.  About 40% of us will eventually receive nursing home care.

Nursing home quality is a serious problem in Oklahoma. And this is not somebody else’s problem. This affects all of us. Sooner or later each of us will either become a nursing home resident or have a loved one who is.

The physical and/or cognitive conditions of many nursing home residents prevent them from speaking up for themselves, and many have nobody else to speak for them. Aren’t both political parties in agreement that a major responsibility of government is to protect the rights and safety of its citizens? Doesn’t that include our senior citizens? That’s what House Bill 2901 was designed to accomplish.

The full text of HB2901 is available online. I have read it. It’s 34 pages, but it is written in plain English and doesn’t take long to work through. Its provisions strike me as great proposals which would protect the welfare of our state’s nursing home residents.

The bill’s provisions include:

1. A requirement that each nursing facility establish a Residents’ Advisory Council. That’s a great idea. If the residents have no loved ones to speak up for them, let’s at least help them work together to look out for each other. Residents’ councils would “communicate to the administrator the opinions and concerns of the residents.” This is their home we’re talking about! The nursing home administrator works for them. Shouldn’t their opinions and concerns be heard?

2. A requirement that each nursing facility establish a family council. Family councils provide a way for relatives and friends to compare notes and work together to improve quality of life for their loved ones. Good nursing homes appreciate the benefit of a family council. Only a substandard facility has anything to fear from a family council.

3. A requirement that every nursing facility has emergency medical resuscitation equipment, better known as a “crash cart.” Isn’t that a good thing to have handy in a facility full of elderly, infirm citizens? Is somebody against that requirement?

4. A requirement that every facility have a physician serving as medical director. You mean that’s not a requirement already? Nursing homes can charge tens of thousands of dollars a year to provide health care without having a doctor directing that care? We understand that much of the day-to-day care is performed by nurses and aides, but a doctor should be overseeing things.

5. A provision that owners of nursing homes are legally liable for abuse and neglect committed by a facility’s agents and employees. The buck has to stop somewhere. Owners should know that they are responsible for the facilities they own and profit from.

6. A provision that invalidates any waiver of legal rights or any arbitration agreement a resident or loved one may have signed. Some nursing homes require residents to sign waivers and arbitration agreements, signing away their legal rights, such as the right to a trial by jury. Would you be willing to be treated by a doctor or hospital that asked you to sign a waiver that you can’t sue them if something goes very wrong? I didn’t think so.

7.  A whistleblower provision: Anybody who reports nursing home abuse or neglect is protected from liability for violating privileged communication.

These provisions and several others in the bill would significantly reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect of Oklahoma nursing home residents. Why would anybody be opposed to House Bill 2901?

When Rep. Dank refused to bring the bill before his committee, he told the media that it was a complex bill that required study. That was more than a month ago. Is Rep. Dank ready to give us a report any time soon on how his studying is coming along?

Dank also promised that he would look at the bill again in October or November. I would like to know which of the above provisions is so complicated or controversial that eight or nine months of study is necessary. Will we really see any forward motion in the fall? I’m skeptical.

Dank also justified his inaction by claiming that the Oklahoma AARP “do[es] not support this bill in its present form.” That’s surprising. Why not? Did the AARP give Rep. Dank a reason? Why won’t the lawmaker share that reason with the rest of us? If the AARP has suggestions to improve the bill, let’s hear them. But nobody’s talking.

What exactly is going on with House Bill 2901? It looks to me like there is a lot of behind the scenes politics going on on this one. Meanwhile, thousands of Oklahoma nursing home residents continue to live in substandard conditions, with nobody speaking up for them. Not even their elected representatives.