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Nursing Home Charged

Oct 23, 2003 | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After spending the last two years probing the operations and finances of a troubled Robinson nursing home, investigators set one goal: to ensure its operators would never care for patients again.

"I don't believe these people should be in this business," , Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said yesterday after announcing criminal charges against the corporate owner, the administrator and the nursing director of Ronald Reagan Atrium I Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

"This is a company that has been reviewed from the beginning of its existence to today," he said. "This company shouldn't exist anymore."

Zappala and Allegheny County police yesterday took one step toward that goal by filing felony neglect, involuntary manslaughter and other charges in the Oct. 26, 2001, death of Mabel Taylor, an 88-year-old Alzheimer's patient who wandered outdoors at Atrium and was locked in a courtyard on a 40-degree night.

Also yesterday, state Department of Health officials successfully petitioned Common Pleas Judge Lawrence J. O'Toole to remove Atrium Administrator Martha F. Bell and other managers for at least 30 days and to appoint Grane Healthcare of O'Hara as temporary manager.

O'Toole's order will be reviewed and possibly extended while criminal cases proceed against Bell, nursing director Kathleen Galati and the Alzheimer's Disease Alliance of Western Pennsylvania, the nonprofit corporation that owns the 120-bed nursing home.

Bell, 57, of West Mifflin, and the Alzheimer's alliance were charged with neglect of a care-dependent person, a first-degree felony equivalent in culpability to murder, Zappala said. Bell and the alliance also were charged with involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor that covers reckless conduct or gross negligence.

Bell and Galati, 58, of the North Side, also are charged with conspiring to conceal how Taylor died by having employees drag her back to bed, wash and re-dress her body and turn up the heat to make it appear that she died in bed.

Galati is also charged with tampering with evidence and committing perjury and false swearing when she testified during a coroner's inquest held last year to review Taylor's death.

Bell is also the head of the Alzheimer's alliance board of directors. Her longtime associate, Atrium and alliance Treasurer Warren Mason, and other board members were not individually charged.

But workers yesterday changed the locks on the offices of Mason and Bell, barring Bell from entering the facility that she once said she developed as a vision after watching her mother die of Alzheimer's.

Charging the nursing home's parent corporation is an unusual step aimed at ensuring that Atrium's past management will not continue to operate the home or care for its remaining 47 residents, Zappala said. It also should send a message to other nursing home operators in a region with a large population of senior citizens.

"This is an extraordinary situation. Someone has died," Zappala said, adding that he will pursue jail terms for Bell and Galati. "I try to be detached, but my parents are in their 70s. I look at this as [if it were] my parents."

Taylor's daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Dennis Baczewski, of Hopewell, looked on yesterday as Zappala announced the charges. They declined comment later.

Zappala said the Atrium case has led him to consider assigning a prosecutor and detective from his office to help the county's Department of Aging pursue and prosecute elder-abuse allegations. He also urged legislators to draft laws eliminating liability for emergency medical technicians and others who may encounter abuse but be afraid to report it.

The Atrium home has had problems with regulators from the time it opened in November 1995, receiving more sanctions than any other nursing home in Western Pennsylvania. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of Atrium in February 2002 detailed criticisms by family members and ex-employees as well as penalties imposed by state and federal regulators.

Yesterday's charges resulted from a two-year investigation spearheaded by Zappala's office and county homicide Detective Terry Hediger, also involving the FBI, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state health department and Robinson police.

Agents from the FBI and HHS have interviewed employees and seized records to determine if the nursing home misused funds or submitted false claims for Medicare and Medicaid payments. They have declined comment on the status of their investigation.

Zappala said his office has never prosecuted a nursing home under the 1995 statute that made neglect of a care-dependent person a first-degree felony. Nor has the statute been widely used around the state.

Prosecutors have found it difficult to meet the high standard of proof needed to obtain a conviction for such a serious offense, Zappala said. That's why investigators took two years to interview scores of witnesses and comb through thousands of records before bringing charges, he said.

In drafting the charges, police focused on a door-alarm system that did not ring when Taylor went outside. Atrium workers later conceded to investigators that employees often propped doors open to deactivate alarms against nursing home policy and state safety requirements while they went outside to smoke.

Investigators also focused on chronic staff shortages. On the night before Taylor died, investigators said, supervisors hired two new aides who lacked background checks or the required documents, then left them to run a 28-resident wing without oversight.

Investigators also noted that aides admitted they were frequently too short-staffed to check on patients every two hours, as required under state and industry standards.

They also debunked a statement from Atrium employee Harold Whipkey, who initially told health department officials that he'd seen Taylor sitting indoors when other evidence indicated that she'd been trapped outdoors. After investigators learned that Whipkey was actually at a Robinson bar, he told them he'd made the statement at Bell's request.

Bell and Galati were arraigned before Robinson District Justice Carla Swearingen, who released them on their own recognizance until a hearing Tuesday. Their attorneys advised them not to comment, but Bell's attorney, Al Lindsay, said the charges were inappropriate and would be "vigorously" contested.

"They waited an awful long time to [file charges], and I don't understand why," said Galati's attorney, William Difenderfer. "She's not handling it well. She's a nervous wreck, as any 58-year-old woman would be in these circumstances."

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