What is going on in Wisconsin? Nursing homes that receive Medicare and Medicaid are required by federal law to report all instances of alleged mistreatment, neglect or abuse, including injuries of unknown origin, to the state health department’s Division of Quality Assurance within 24 hours. A recent investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found facilities do not get punished when they fail to comply with the legal requirement and report incidents. Most of the time they don’t even investigate the incidents themselves.
Families of residents complain that facilities’ failure to report serious injuries or deaths related to abuse or neglect is not uncommon, and the state health department only learns about incidents after a family member files a complaint. In some cases, nursing homes file internal reports after a resident injury or death, but do not report the incident to the state, in hopes to cover up the incident.
The number of complaints the state received about Wisconsin nursing homes and assisted living facilities rose from 1,684 in 2000 to 2,562 last year — an increase of more than 50 percent. At the same time, the Wisconsin health department has cut its staff of full-time nursing home surveyors from 100 in 2002 to 64 in 2012 despite an aging baby-boomer population. A state report found that Wisconsin will have 1.3 million residents over 65 by 2030, compared to about 777,000 residents in 2010.
Meanwhile new laws to help nursing homes avoid accountability prevent juries from hearing about state investigation reports of nursing homes even in criminal cases which means that more neglect or abuse will go undetected and unpunished. Critics say the law removes a useful tool for ferreting out abuse and neglect, noting that attorneys cannot use state inspection reports to affirm allegations or impeach witnesses.
Representative Jon Richards, a Democrat from Milwaukee, says the new law is making it harder for families to win their cases in court. “The bill was passed, nominally, to produce job creation, but I don’t see how letting abusers off the hook creates a single job. That is a real problem.”