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Senators Hear Testimony Favoring Stricter Penalties for Elder Abuse

Jan 1, 2002 | The Kansas City Star After a series of strokes left his father with dementia in 1998, Tom Klammer and his family looked to local nursing homes.

But there were problems, Klammer said Tuesday. He said his father's medications ran out, his father wandered away undetected and suffered five broken ribs at two nursing homes.

Klammer said his father's experiences were part of a national problem.

"We are not talking about isolated incidents in a system that is generally working well," said Klammer, of Kansas City. "Many die untimely and miserable deaths in nursing homes."

Klammer was one of five witnesses to testify during a Senate hearing at the Charles Evans Whittaker Federal Courthouse in Kansas City about a bill to protect the elderly. Supporters say the bill is particularly important as the population grows older.

Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican and chairman of the Senate's Aging Subcommittee, organized four hearings in the state to gather information to support his Elder Justice Act.

The bill would:

• Create new programs to help victims.

• Provide grants to better train law enforcement officials and health-care providers to detect problems.

• Require FBI criminal background checks for those employed at federally funded long-term care facilities. Currently, only state checks are required.

"As a society, we can no longer look away from the abuse of the elderly that is happening all around us," Bond said.

An estimated 500,000 older Americans were abused in 1996, according to the most recent study by the National Center on Elder Abuse in Washington. Only about one-fifth of the cases were reported, and most of the abuse occurred in the home, not in nursing homes, according to the 1998 study.

Other witnesses at Tuesday's hearing testified about the difficulties combating the problem.

No federal law exists that is specific to elder abuse, making it difficult to prosecute such cases, said Todd Graves, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

In recent cases in Joplin and Gladstone, federal prosecutors argued that the facilities violated the False Claims Act by receiving Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for substandard services.

"We prosecuted as civil fraud against the government rather than as actual elder abuse because there is no actual elder abuse law on the federal level," Graves said. "We need more specific legislation addressing the patient as a victim versus the government as the victim."

Public education, more collaboration with social service agencies and specialized training for police also would go a long way toward fighting elder abuse, said Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo III.

Anthony DeWitt, a Jefferson City attorney, called on Congress to get tougher on nursing homes. He advocated prosecuting facilities that violate standards, more stringent fines and license revocations. He favored a whistle-blower law to protect caregivers who report abuse to authorities.

While enforcement and prosecution are key in stemming this problem, so is prevention, said Norma Collins, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Missouri. Studying the cause of the abuse and the reasons why the crime remains under-reported is an equally important tool in ending elder abuse, Collins said.

As for Klammer, he said his father is in a better facility, but his experiences have spurred him to join a local group that lobbies lawmakers and advocates reforms.

"Early on, I heard some advocates refer to the treatment of the nation's elderly with terms like `holocaust.' I thought then that this was a bit of shrill, if understandable, exaggeration," Klammer said. "I no longer think that."

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