Cracking Down on the Non-Reporting of Suspected Elder Abuse

Bill would increase fines for care-home workers who ignore mistreatment of seniors
Credit: Sabine van Erp from Pixabay
The measure would raise fines to $1,500 on individuals and to $5,000 on care facilities.

Lawmakers have advanced a bill that would increase fines on care homes and the people they employ if they fail to report suspected abuse or exploitation of elderly residents to state officials or law enforcement.

The Assembly’s Aging and Senior Services Committee last Thursday approved A-2719, which would raise the fine on individuals to $1,500 from $500 and on the care facilities to $5,000 from $2,500 for the non-reporting of complaints that could include physical abuse by staff or other residents, failure to follow a physician’s orders, or the financial exploitation by family members.

The state’s Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman, which investigates cases of abuse and neglect, said there was a 38% increase in the number of reported cases from 2,607 in federal fiscal year 2015 to 3,601 in 2019, according to the Ombudsman, Laurie Brewer.

She attributed the increase in reported abuse cases to a shortage of staff, putting more pressure on existing staff to care for elderly residents.

“Studies have shown understaffing to be one of the underlying causes of elder abuse and neglect in nursing homes resulting in falls, bedsores, infections, resident-to-resident altercations and even physical abuse,” Brewer said. “Clearly, when staff are overworked and over-stressed they are unable to provide the kind of personal attention and supervision that is required to ensure the safety, health and quality of life of the vulnerable elderly residents in their care.”

Staff shortages blamed

Based on reports from her staff and volunteers, Brewer has concluded the increase in abuse reports received by her office is based on a staff shortage, especially during evenings and weekends.

The proposed penalties would represent an increase from fines required by “Peggy’s Law,” a 2017 statute that resulted from the abuse of Peggy Marzolla, a 93-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who suffered injuries including a broken eye socket, a broken jaw, and a broken wrist at a care home, and died about two months after being hospitalized in 2010, said Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chairwoman of the Assembly committee. She urged policymakers to improve pay and conditions for nursing home staff, in an effort to ensure that the elderly are properly cared for.

“Residents developing pressures sores, falling, losing weight, being verbally or physically mistreated — the vast majority of these cases boil down to the fact that there are simply not enough qualified staff there to help residents with their most basic needs,” Brewer told the committee in a January hearing. “From a public policy perspective, it seems to me that any measure that could be taken to ensure safe staffing levels would go a long way toward improving conditions.”

If the ombudsman’s office verifies mistreatment, it refers the case to the Department of Health, to the appropriate licensing agency, or, if a suspected crime has been committed, to the appropriate law-enforcement agency, Brewer said.

According to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, New Jersey ranks 35th in the country in the number of staff hours per resident per day.

Increasing fines to send a message

Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), the new bill’s lead sponsor, said the increased fines are designed to ensure that any abuse cases won’t go unreported.

“Caretakers in nursing homes and other senior living facilities have a responsibility to keep our loved ones safe,” Downey said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen cases in New Jersey in which an elderly person suffered abuse and staff failed to report it to authorities.”

Raising fines for non-reporting of abuse would “send a clear message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in New Jersey,” she said.

But John Indyk, vice president of the Health Care Association of New Jersey — which represents care-home providers — told the committee’s latest hearing that the care facilities should not be penalized for any failures by individuals.

“If there are individuals that aren’t reporting, that’s one thing, but to double the fine on a facility for not reporting something that they had no knowledge should have been reported, doesn’t make much sense to me. We’d prefer the fine to remain what it is now,” he said.

The bill would require staff such as nurses, physicians or social workers who have reasonable cause to suspect patients are being abused or exploited to report the incidents to the ombudsman. If the staff member believes the abuse constitutes a crime, he or she is also required to report it to law enforcement, the bill says.