The state department tasked with regulating Oklahoma’s nursing homes is failing to ensure the safety of those who live within them, an advocate for reform said Thursday.
On the lawn of the state Health Department, flanked by the daughters of a 96-year-old woman who was physically abused by two Oklahoma City nursing home aides last year, Wes Bledsoe said the department should amp up its inspections and investigations process immediately.
“If we had the OSU and OU football teams ranking as low as this in the NCAA, the presidents of the universities as well as the coaches would be fired, so maybe we need to be firing the people who are running these agencies,” he said.
Eryetha Mayberry sat in a wheelchair and suffered from dementia when two nurses aides at Quail Creek Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center were arrested on abuse complaints last April.
Mayberry’s daughters set up a hidden video camera after they noticed some of their mom’s personal items missing. But instead of catching a thief, the tape revealed two women pushing the women’s mother and gagging her with gloved hands.
One of the women, Lucy Gakunga, 24, is now serving a prison sentence at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud. Her co-defendant, Caroline Kaseke, 29, has not been convicted and remains at large.
Bledsoe said it is unconscionable that the state Health Department is not investigating the nursing home and said it reflects the department’s attitude about this type of abuse.
He said the department cited only six of the state’s 300-plus nursing homes for failing to protect residents from abuse in the past 3 1/2 years, despite 57 such citations in the 3 1/2 years before that.
“That, to me, is scandalous,” Bledsoe said.
But Dorya Huser, chief of the department’s Long Term Care Service, said Bledsoe does not understand how these investigations work.
The state investigated more than 1,240 complaints at nursing homes last year alone, and cited 1,000 of them for deficiencies, Huser said.
Twenty citations have been issued against nursing homes since May 2009 for failure to protect residents from abuse.
After all complaints, her surveyors investigate. And this is on top of routine inspections done every year, she said.
“I have never failed to investigate a complaint of abuse or neglect in a facility,” Huser said.
She said the state never opened an investigation into Quail Creek because facility directors responded immediately to the allegations. They detained the aides, called the police, investigated the incident and promptly notified the Health Department, Huser said.
“No one is happy that incident occurred, not even the facility,” she said. “We would be looking at whether or not the facility has reason to suspect something was going to occur and if they violated state or federal law. But long-term care does not do criminal investigations.”
She said Quail Creek has no history of abuse patterns and neither of the aides had a criminal record.
That said, there is plenty of room for the department to improve its standards of inspections and investigations, Huser said.
A recent investigation by the nonprofit group ProPublica found more than a third of Oklahoma nursing homes have been cited for serious deficiencies in the past, and the state ranks eighth in terms of serious deficiencies per nursing home.
Huser said part of the problem is turnover for surveyors.
Eighteen of 80 surveyors on staff are currently in training, and the department has room for 12 more, she said.
Bledsoe called on state legislators to approve quickly Senate Bill 587, which would allow nursing home residents and their families to install video recorders in their rooms.
He also asked for legislators to reconsider a separate bill, Senate Bill 629. If passed, it would include the state’s seven veterans’ centers under the Health Department’s purview.
“If this is the kind of oversight public health is going to provide, then we need to be looking at other solutions,” he said.