A new report from a legal aid organization for the poor accused the Pennsylvania Department of Health of failing to properly investigate complaints about nursing homes or enforce regulations that are designed to protect residents' safety.
The report by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia said the department dismissed 92% of complaints from 2012 through 2014 for about 46 nursing homes that operated in Philadelphia. It also said the department minimized the severity of violations, and never found violations in follow-up inspections.
Sam Brooks, a staff attorney for the advocacy group, said Friday he had not looked at 2015 data to determine whether the patterns his report found are continuing. He also said he has not discussed it with Department of Health personnel.
In a statement, Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy did not dispute the findings, comment on them or say whether she had read the report. But she noted that the activity occurred under the prior administration.
"We are committed to performing a comprehensive review of all current policies and regulations, including these previous measures, in order to ensure that the DOH oversight authority is carried out in a way that meets state and federal quality and safety standards and protects the residents of this Commonwealth," Murphy said.
Over the three-year study period, the department received 507 complaints and found 43 to be substantiated, the report said.
"It stretches belief to suggest that 92% of complaints filed by residents, their families, or the ombudsman were unfounded," the report said.
The department does not provide details of an investigation that finds no violation, it said. In 161 follow-up visits, department inspectors never found that a violation persisted, the report said.
"It is highly improbable that in every instance, especially in instances where DOH discovered program-wide deficiencies, that every facility had completely remedied all of the problems," the report said.
In the meantime, enforcement actions against nursing homes saw steep declines, in part because of a 2012 change in policy advising nursing homes that they no longer had to report certain injuries or accidents, the report said.
Department inspectors found 474 violations over the three years, usually during an annual survey. Only one received the most severe grading for harm and breadth, when a facility's hot water in resident showers was too hot. Accidental patient deaths, escapes and other incidents did not earn that severe rating, it said. Such classifications end up figuring into the federal government's ratings on nursing home quality, the report noted.
"If DOH is not properly investigating complaints or characterizing violations, the public is forced to make decisions based on inadequate and incomplete information," the report said.
Ron Barth, whose organization LeadingAge PA represents not-for-profit businesses that provide services to the elderly, said department inspectors generally do a good job in annual inspections and complaint investigations. But, he said, it is important when choosing a nursing home to visit, check on staffing levels and see how staff interacts with residents, instead of relying on reports based on survey results.
Stuart Shapiro, CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes and other service providers for the elderly, said the department ensures nursing homes meet strict guidelines for quality and staffing.
Pennsylvania nursing homes receive fewer deficiencies than the national average, and rank the second lowest among states in serious deficiencies, Shapiro said.