Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Support builds for reforms for retarded

Lawmakers behind crackdown on care

By Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Legislators on Tuesday expressed broad support for a bill that would give the state new powers to crack down on troubled nursing homes for the mentally retarded.

        Legislative leaders and lawmakers also backed other reform measures put forth by Gov. Bob Taft, including a plan to fine nursing homes for the mentally retarded if they fail to provide good care. Currently, the state can fine only nursing homes for the elderly.

        Instead of keeping people healthy and safe, Ohio's mental retardation system is so chaotic it routinely fails to prevent deaths, correct problems or enforce minimum standards of care, The Cincinnati Enquirer has found.
Twelve who died - Our investigation found a dozen questionable deaths
An unequal system - The kind of care depends on where you live
Take control - make sure a person with mental retardation is well cared for
        Several lawmakers and the governor also want to give regulators the authority to quickly move people from facilities with major health and safety problems. And they say a committee of prosecutors, judges and police should be chosen to discuss how to step up prosecutions of people who abuse or neglect the mentally retarded.

        Rep. Patricia Clancy, R-Cincinnati, said a special report in The Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday illustrates the need for such changes.

        “It is a shame that our most vulnerable citizens can't feel safe and secure,” Ms. Clancy said. “We have to make sure we do everything possible to fix these homes that are not providing proper care.”

        The newspaper identified 12 people who died in questionable circumstances in the system in the past three years. It also reported that 80 to 120 deaths in the system each year are avoidable, according to Dr. Andrew Eddy, medical director of the Department of Mental Retardation.

        The report found conditions were so bad at 65 public and private nursing homes for the mentally retarded that the state threatened to cut off their Medicaid funds. Eight of those threats were related to deaths in nursing homes for the mentally retarded.

        Sen. Robert Spada, R-Parma Heights, sponsor of the bill to crack down on homes with repeated problems, said enthusiasm for his measure is building fast. “I'm thrilled. I had no idea the governor was going to issue a release supporting it,” Mr. Spada said. “I expect the bill to pass, especially now.”

        If it becomes law, the measure would allow the state to suspend admissions at all nursing homes owned by a company that has had repeated problems at any one home. The measure also would give homes three-year licenses that the state could opt not to renew. Officials say the current lifetime licenses are legally too difficult to revoke.

        “The bottom line is, we're going to make sure people in facilities are treated appropriately,” Mr. Spada said.

        Jeff Davis, assistant director of the Department of Mental Retardation, said the bill will help the department stop abuse, neglect and other serious issues in homes. “Some (care) providers need to refocus their efforts,” he said. “If they don't, we need to find alternative providers.”

        Advocates for the mentally retarded also back the reforms, but say they still don't address the underlying causes of abuse and neglect. Tom Eamoe, executive director of the Hamilton County Arc, an advocacy group, said the real issue is that workers are underpaid and undertrained.

        “If you take a worker making $7.50 an hour and plop them down without training and expect them to care for mentally retarded people, and then prosecute them when it doesn't go well, it's not going to solve this,” he said.

        Mr. Davis said the department is working on a plan to implement statewide training for low-wage workers.

        Rep. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, said all the proposed reforms are good, but questioned why they weren't enacted sooner.

        “The bottom line is, (Mr. Taft's) office should have known about some of these problems,” he said. “If the governor's administration was totally unaware there were these kinds of abuses going on ... then they have a serious problem.”

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said the governor's office knew about problems, and hired department Director Ken Ritchey three years ago to implement changes. He said Mr. Ritchey has done a good job.

        “It's not easy to turn the Titanic around,” Mr. Finan said. “But he has taken some major steps in that direction.”


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