Plea Ends Nursing Home Abuse Probe
Health: Firm that runs 60 facilities in state pleads no contest in case involving two deaths. It pledges improvements, is fined $2 million.
By JESSICA GARRISON, TIMES STAFF WRITER
One of the nation's largest nursing home chains pleaded no contest Thursday to felony elder abuse charges stemming from the deaths of two people and promised to make wide-ranging improvements in the quality of care at 60 facilities statewide.
Beverly Enterprises Inc. also agreed to pay $2 million in civil penalties for a range of violations that allegedly led to major bedsores, dehydration, malnutrition, poor personal hygiene and improper medication among patients from Yreka to Escondido.
The company, which cares for more than 13,000 elderly and dependent Californians annually, pledged to reimburse the government for its $500,000 in investigative costs. It did not admit to wrongdoing in the civil case.
The settlement of criminal and civil complaints came after an unusual two-year investigation by the California attorney general's office and the Santa Barbara County district attorney.
The district attorney's office began its probe after the death of a 102-year-old woman, Laura Simmons, who suffered from infected bedsores at Beverly La Cumbre nursing home in Santa Barbara and had maggots in her foot. A year later, an 87-year-old patient at the same facility, William Marthai, died after a feeding tube was inserted into his abdomen, outside his stomach, leading to an infection, said Santa Barbara Assistant Dist. Atty. Tracy Grossman.
Among the leads investigators pursued was a journal left by a La Cumbre nurse, Mary Hochman, who had complained about conditions at the facility and later shot and killed herself, officials said.
The journal did not have information about either of the two patient deaths, Grossman said, but was among the evidence investigators used to build its civil case. The company has also settled lawsuits brought by both the Marthai and Simmons families. Details of the settlements were not available Thursday.
Officials with the Arkansas-based Beverly Health Care said the company has begun to make improvements.
"It's a serious issue. We are taking it seriously, and we accept responsibility for what occurred," said Dave Devereaux, executive vice president. Since January 2001, he said, Beverly has "redesigned our organization and put more resources" into the operation.
Under the civil settlement, the corporation will be subject to penalties of up to $6,000 per violation and could be barred from receiving funding from Medicare and Medi-Cal if it does not comply with reforms. In 1999, in an unrelated case, the company agreed to reimburse the government $170 million and pay a $5-million fine to settle allegations of Medicare fraud.
Beverly also agreed to increase staff training to prevent neglect, bedsores and accidents and to treat patients with respect and dignity, according to a summary sheet provided by the attorney general's office. The chain pledged to have adequate staffing levels at facilities, and to develop quality review procedures at each facility that will make annual progress reports to the attorney general's office.
"The attorney general has made it a priority to see that elder abuse is prosecuted," said spokeswoman Sandra Michioku. "He wants to see not only individuals working at nursing homes be held accountable, but also the businesses that make money. They need to put the interests of our frail and elderly Californians at the top and not just look at making money."
Beverly has 462 facilities nationwide and 60 in California. Eleven are in Los Angeles County, three in Orange County, two in Ventura County and one each in San Diego and San Bernardino counties. Beverly, which is the second-largest nursing home provider in California, sold its La Cumbre facility in November 2001 to new owners, who are not involved in the case.
Among the Southern California cases that drew citations are that of an 85-year-old in Monrovia who suffered from the pain of a dislocated shoulder for four days before receiving an X-ray, and that of a 98-year-old Alzheimer's patient in Ventura whose leg was broken when staff members transferred her to a wheelchair improperly.
Advocates for nursing home reform cheered the enforcement action.
"The system is starting to work," said Prescott Cole, staff attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. "This breaks the pattern .... They didn't let Beverly walk away from that disaster at La Cumbre."
It is unusual for nursing homes to be targeted in a criminal investigation, although state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has pledged to pursue violations in such homes aggressively.
Michioku said the attorney general's office got involved after receiving a tip from a local ombudsman who advocates on behalf of elderly patients.
The Santa Barbara County district attorney's office began its own investigation after a series of articles in a local newspaper. The two agencies later joined forces.
See also: Whisleblower Nurse Vindicated