Elderly in need of an assist lose key measure of protection

News and Observer

Older people in North Carolina who live in nursing homes and those in assisted-living facilities will be a little less safe now thanks to an unfortunate bit of legislation brought about by the lobbying clout of the long-term care industry. It would be hard to pinpoint the worst work of this edition of the General Assembly, but this one would be near the top.

Lawmakers apparently bowed to industry influence and eliminated the state’s Penalty Review Committee. Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill, of course, so he shares responsibility.

The committee since 1989 has held public hearings and proposed fines and other penalties against nursing homes and assisted-living centers that violate state regulations. The new law tucks the responsibility for watching the homes under the state Department of Health and Human Services, which is run by gubernatorial appointees and is subject to pressure from lawmakers. The department also can avoid some aspects of public disclosure. As North Carolina Health News reported, advocates for the elderly are aghast at this maneuver.

Sharon Wilder, the state ombudsman for long-term care residents for 18 years until her retirement, said, “When facilities are not even meeting minimum standards and people are dying, sometimes horrible deaths, there needs to be a public airing. I was just shocked about it and feel really badly about it for the long-term care residents and their families.”

This bill is nothing but a bow to an industry with lobbying clout at the expense of people who have few advocates. The measure even lowers the standards for proving neglect.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. With baby boomers retiring and moving into their elderly years, there is going to be more demand for long-term care facilities. Having more people in need of services with less supervision is a formula for trouble. And the pattern under a Republican-run DHHS has been for that agency to lower the fines and soften the penalties that the committee recommended.

Industry lobbyist Lou Wilson justified the measure by saying the committee was behind in its work. “Where at one time it had been a good committee,” Wilson said, “it had become a place for lawyers to come to take notes to sue.”

The state, even under Democratic control, has bent over backward to protect this industry on the premise that the state needs such homes — and needs them to be affordable — so the rules should not be onerous. But the Penalty Review Committee was at least one measure of protection for people who can’t defend themselves very well. And now it’s gone.

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