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Families Urge Better Policing of Nursing Homes

Aug 20, 2003 | Post-Dispatch

If federal and state officials did a better job of policing nursing homes, Patricia Stevich might not have strangled to death three years ago at a Florissant facility where she was found entwined in a bed restraint, her husband believes.

And Burton Reese's daughter blames weak government oversight for what she sees as inadequate prosecution of several Ferguson nursing-home workers who were charged in 1999 with bribing another patient to attack her father, a stroke victim who also suffers from Alzheimer's.

"There's no repercussions for killing people, hurting people," said Reese's daughter, Martha Ballenot.

Ballenot and Stevich's husband, Francis Stevich, offered graphic and emotional testimony Wednesday at a U.S. Senate hearing conducted at the federal courthouse by Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.

Bond is the new chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on aging and a co-sponsor of a bill that would expand the federal government's role in fighting elder abuse. The hearing Wednesday was the last of several on the issue recently conducted around the state.

Bond emphasized that elderly abuse comes from various sources, not just from nursing homes, and that the hearing "is not an indictment in any way of the entire nursing-home industry."

But Bond also cited recent findings from the federal General Accounting Office that residents in about 20 percent of the nation's nursing homes and about one in four in Missouri "suffered actual harm from the care they received."

The hearing didn't include testimony from any state officials, nor from the nursing-home industry. But it did feature some Senate bill supporters, including U.S. Attorney Ray Gruender and Jim Gregory, an assistant prosecutor in St. Charles County who obtained convictions against the operators of several area nursing homes, including the one where Patricia Stevich died.

Gruender, who enforces federal laws, said his office regularly receives complaints about nursing-home care but generally can prosecute only those cases where authorities can link "the conduct in question and federal payments."

Gregory noted in his testimony that although he successfully has prosecuted cases in St. Charles County, the maximum state penalties were low - generally $5,000 or less. One executive faces a year in the county jail. All of the sentences are being appealed.

Gregory called for stiffer punishments and laws requiring that all complaints of nursing-home abuse be filed with police, and not just state oversight agencies.

In a telephone interview late Wednesday, Denise Clemonds, executive director for the Missouri Association of Homes for the Aging, said the nursing-home industry already was heavily regulated and that any new laws should target "those bad actors" and not the industry as a whole.

At the hearing, Ballenot said she was upset because charges were dropped against several nursing-home workers involved in her father's abuse case because local authorities determined that her father "was too demented to testify."

She and Francis Stevich also sharply criticized state officials charged with monitoring nursing-home care. David Durbin, who just took over this week as Missouri's new director of the Division of Senior Services and Regulation, said in a telephone interview later that the nursing-home industry will face stiffer state penalties and larger fines under new regulations going into effect this month. But he added that the agency doesn't have enough staff to fully investigate the 9,000 complaints it receives annually.


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