Elder abuse is a quiet epidemic that too often goes unnoticed by the general public, despite more than 2 million cases nationwide each year. But lately, media accounts of problems at assisted-living facilities have focused new attention on the need for reform.
In Sacramento County, we have seen firsthand the impact on our seniors from the lack of state laws and regulations guarding such facilities, known in government parlance as Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly.
In 2013, Georgia Holzmeister, 88, a dementia patient living at Sacramento’s Super Home Care, died after suffering massive, foul-smelling bedsores. The sores on her buttocks resulted in sepsis, a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body develops a severe, toxic response to bacteria or other germs. In 2007, Georgia Fitsos died of acute sepsis and other complications from “a bedsore the size of a turkey platter,” a Stage 4 pressure wound that had eaten deeply into her flesh while she was a resident in a Folsom facility, the Broadstone Residential Facility. In 2006, Marjorie Leroux died from smoke inhalation from a fire at Home Place I, a Citrus Heights facility, while two other resident seniors died trapped in their beds.
These deaths are horribly painful, preventable and, tragically, not uncommon. Added to these examples are the stories of seniors who are alone and silently neglected, and not given basic human rights on a daily basis.
Community Care Licensing is the regulatory agency that has the responsibility for overseeing California’s Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly. This governmental agency has been decimated by cutbacks and is exceedingly slow to act in the face of an epidemic of neglect. Thirty years ago, California’s regulatory agency for assisted living facilities inspected such homes every six months. Today, budget cuts have reduced government oversight to drive-by inspections once every five years. When state regulators receive a specific complaint of a resident rights violation, it takes months and sometimes years for an inspector to complete an investigation, issue findings and ensure the facility has fixed its deficient practice. In some cases, the state does nothing.
The time to act is now; we cannot allow this neglect of our seniors to continue. That’s why Consumer Attorneys of California is joining with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform to co-sponsor legislation to put common-sense measures into the law. Assembly Bill 2171 by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, is the linchpin of a package of bills introduced this year to protect seniors and those with disabilities who reside in assisted living homes, which are fast becoming the go-to destination for our parents as they age and need help. More than 7,500 have sprouted in California, serving as home to 170,000 elderly residents. In Sacramento County, there are more than 500 facilities.
Despite that rapid growth, these facilities for our frail elderly exist in the Wild West as far as consumer protection, with virtually no oversight from the state. There is no sheriff in town. Wieckowski is attempting to rectify this serious situation.
AB 2171 establishes a statutory bill of rights and a limited private right-of-action for residents of residential care facilities so they or their loved ones can address wrongs in our courts. This measure will protect the dignity, safety and self-determination of at-risk seniors and disabled adults in areas such as visitation, privacy, confidentiality, personalized care, autonomy, adequate staffing and many more. The measure will also strengthen a resident’s right to make choices about his or her care, treatment and daily life in the facility.
In addition to fundamental rights, residential care residents desperately need a better way to enforce their rights. California’s Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly regulators have repeatedly shown that they are often unable to protect residents from abuse and neglect. Wieckowski’s bill addresses this problem by cementing legal rights for residents, ensuring a path for the aggrieved to take action in this era of fiscal limits for regulatory agencies.
To ease concerns of proliferating litigation, the bill gives an errant facility an opportunity to cure the problem before a civil suit can be filed. This “private right of action” in the bill will provide a pathway for residential care residents and their families to stop ongoing violations through the civil courts without a big cost to California taxpayers. The bill will also bring California in line with other states with protections for residential care patients. While other states have taken steps to protect their seniors over the last 10 to 15 years, California has fallen behind.
Our seniors need better protections and access to justice; AB 2171 is the answer.
Nancy Peverini is the legislative director for Consumer Attorneys of California. Kathryn Stebner is a San Francisco elder abuse attorney.