Thursday, December 26, 2002

Nursing home resident wants to smoke indoors

KIRTLAND, Ohio - Virgie Meade struggles with emphysema and a pulmonary disorder. She needs pure oxygen to breathe. Now she says administrators at the Western Reserve Extended Care nursing home in Kirtland, about 15 miles east of Cleveland, are keeping her from the one thing she still enjoys - smoking.

Meade, who has lived at the nursing home since 1998, and other residents were banned from a TV room they used for smoking and have been ordered to smoke outside, in an area protected from inclement weather with sheets of plastic.

That's not easy for Meade, who had a stroke seven years ago, lost a leg in her battle with bone cancer and uses a wheelchair. She has smoked for 37 years, since she was 20.

"The cold makes my chest hurt real bad," said Meade, who fears another bout of pneumonia. "It feels like a block of concrete on my chest."

Her lawyer, Beverly Briggs, plans to sue the nursing home in Lake County Common Pleas Court, asking for the home to restore Meade's right to smoke indoors.

"It's worth the fight," Meade said Friday in her small room. "I feel like they're taking away my rights to enjoy what life I have left."

Meade, who smokes up to a pack of cigarettes a day, said smoking is "my only pleasure."

Western Reserve Extended Care has had a no-smoking policy since 1989, said Amy Knapp, a spokeswoman for Arkansas-based Beverly Enterprises Inc., which owns the facility and 460 others in 27 states. The policy was never enforced until a new administrator took over about a month ago. All smoking materials are now kept at the nurses' stations.

"When decisions are made with respect to smoking, it's done in the best interests of all the residents," Knapp said. "We have a huge responsibility to ensure a safe environment for all of them, and the non-smoking policy is being enforced for all of them."

But according to the Ohio Department of Health, which enforces federal nursing home rules, nursing home operators that change a policy to prohibit smoking must allow current residents to continue to smoke "in an area that maintains the quality of life for these residents," said department spokesman Jay Carey. The change can only be applied to incoming residents.

"Going outside in cold weather doesn't appear to meet the requirement of maintaining the quality of life for the resident," he said.

Carey wasn't sure if a decision to enforce a no-smoking policy that had been long ignored was the same as changing the policy.

"If a complaint is filed, then we will investigate and make that determination," he said.

Recently, the Cleveland Long-Term Care Ombudsman's Office, a consumer advocate for nursing home residents, investigated a complaint on behalf of Meade and found that her rights had been denied.

"The facility had not consistently applied their no-smoking policy," Executive Director Richard Martin said. "It had established a precedent with the resident that the no-smoking policy did not apply and then retroactively applied it."

Attempts to negotiate for some other alternative failed, he said, because the facility's administration argued that if it made an exception for one person, it would have to do so for everyone.

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