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Nursing Home Abuse Criminal

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Washington, DCMore than 90 percent of US nursing homes have at least one employee who has been convicted of a crime, and five percent of all nursing home employees have at least one criminal conviction, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. According to this new report (March 2011), it comes as no surprise that nursing home abuse is rampant: Some nursing home employees had been convicted of assault.

According to The New York Times, names of more than 35,000 nursing home employees were checked against FBI records, and this study found that almost 50 percent of nursing homes had five or more employees with at least one conviction. "For example, a nursing facility with a total of 164 employees had 34 with at least one conviction," said Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. Levinson also noted that there are no federal laws or regulations in place requiring nursing homes to check whether applicants have federal or state criminal records.

Currently, only 10 states require a check of FBI and state records; 33 states require a check of state records, and the rest don't have any specific requirements.

Health professionals and politicians are calling this new study important. For instance, Charlene Harrington, a professor at the School of Nursing of the University of California, San Francisco, said this new study "cries out for additional regulation. Residents in these homes are so vulnerable." Senator Herb Kohl said: ''The current system of background checks is haphazard, inconsistent and full of gaping holes in many states. Predators can easily evade detection during the hiring process, securing jobs that allow them to assault, abuse and steal from defenseless elders.'' But this study isn't a revelation, at least not in Michigan.

In April 2006, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox announced a new law that was supposed to enhance existing laws regarding criminal background checks for residential care facility employees. Cox's 2006 Nursing Home Initiative:

• Expanded the number of crimes that can disqualify a nursing home applicant from employment, adding drug and theft offenses
• Expanded the disqualification period for serious felonies
• Made it a crime not to conduct a criminal background check
• Mandated fingerprint checks for employees

The Nursing Home Initiative found that since 2002, about 25 percent of residential care facility employees committing crimes against residents had past criminal convictions.

The penalty for nursing home abuse varies state to state, and it's not uncommon for people who have been convicted of crimes in one state to find employment at nursing homes in other states. According to Levinson, ''Some states allow individual nursing facilities to make decisions regarding the employability of individuals with criminal convictions, while others rely on a state agency.''

Under federal law, it is illegal for nursing homes to employ anyone found guilty of abusing, neglecting or mistreating patients. But FBI records do not always indicate if the victim was a nursing home resident. And probably the biggest challenge for nursing homes is finding and keeping employees, given the average starting wage of $10 an hour.

Currently if convicted, accused employees face penalties and not the nursing homes themselves. (The penalty for felony uttering and publishing a false Michigan State Police Criminal Record Response is 14 years. The penalty for falsifying an employment application is 90 days and/or $500.)

Shouldn't nursing homes also be held accountable? And shouldn't all states have the same laws governing nursing home abuse?

The new health care law offers $160 million to states to improve criminal background checks on prospective employees at nursing homes and other long-term care providers. But will that law simply make it harder to find employees? It would seem that more questions are still being raised than answers…

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