Legislators hear of problems in nursing homes hit by strikes

State legislators Thursday heard tales of elderly patients left in bed for days, sitting for hours in urine and feces, and getting the wrong meals and medications at four nursing homes where the workers have been on strike for over two months.

And just in case two hours of testimony wasn’t enough, the union representing the 375 striking workers passed out a booklet of resident’s stories to members of the Human Services and Public Health committees.

The union testimony angered the legislators, and so did the fact that the two state agencies charged with overseeing nursing homes declined to attend Thursday’s hearing.

Walker, Toni, 6-25-10

Rep. Toni Walker: ‘We have to look at those things’

“To think about the fact that someone is sitting in their room and the problems that happen when you don’t have them changed, when they sit in their own urine or feces… We have to look at some of those things,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Human Services Committee.

The departments of Social Services and Public Health, who are responsible for monitoring and regulating the states nursing homes, were both invited to attend, but rejected the request. They notified committee leadership that they could not testify because they did not want to jeopardize a pending federal lawsuit challenging the state’s formula for Medicaid reimbursements.

“This has nothing to do with the suit. This has to do with the care of the residents in the facility. They are responsible for that,” said Walker.

DPH Spokesman William Gerrish said during an interview that there is no reason to believe the 435 residents at four homes owned by Spectrum Health Care are receiving substandard care, noting the unannounced evaluation visits “routinely conducted” by DPH at each of the facilities.

“They were relatively minor infractions and they have addressed them. We did not find issues of patient abuse or patient neglect,” Gerrish said, saying the infractions ranged from meals and medications not being delivered on time to clients not knowing where the fire escape was. “We do feel those issues have been addressed.”

Spectrum, which owns the four nursing homes in Ansonia, Derby, Hartford and Winsted, was not at the meeting either.

The Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which includes the Spectrum facilities, submitted a prepared statement that did not directly address conditions at the homes affected by the strike, but said state nursing homes are “very experienced and well-prepared in the event of potential strikes.”

The statement by Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the association, also said the lack of adequate state funding for nursing home care has created “a very difficult environment for nursing homes to satisfy all the demands being made by their employees.”

But legislators were more interested in the testimony about problems in the four nursing homes than in complaints about funding.

“Seems to me this borders on abuse or neglect,” said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairman of the Aging Committee. “Patients aren’t getting the care they need.”

“We should get involved,” echoed Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, drawing agreement from other Democratic lawmakers at the hearing.

The lawmakers said they will ask the attorney general’s office to investigate the living conditions at the homes, write area hospitals to request they avoid sending patient there, and review the regulations for care of residents during strikes to make sure they are adequate.

Nursing homes are required to have contingency strike plans on file with the Department of Public Health, but state lawmakers said they are no longer sure that’s enough.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that his office has received complaints of patient mistreatment and neglect at Spectrum and is investigating if “further action is appropriate.”

Walker said another step the state can take now is to fill the Elder Abuse position at the DPH that has been vacant since November 2009.

“We have no one that is filling that position in the state, which is sort of sad,” she said. “But the irony is we do have someone who works in the Medicaid fraud unit. So it’s not about the care for our clients in the nursing homes, it’s about how much the dollars are.”