SAN FRANCISCO – Nursing homes found to have harmed or neglected patients will face higher fines – up to $100,000 – under a bill signed Thursday by Gov. Gray Davis.
The bill, which Davis signed in the garden of a San Francisco senior center, would raise minimum fines for the most serious violations, such as those that lead to a patient’s death, from the current $5,000 to a range of $25,000 to $100,000.
Less serious violations will be raised to the range of $2,000 to $20,000, from the current minimum of $1,000.
“All of us know we are living in wonderfully prosperous times and we have our parents to thank for that,” Davis said. “They fought wars and they made investments and we have reaped the dividends. It is time for them to live their sunset years with dignity.”
The bill was authored by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco, and was supported by nursing home administrators, patient advocates and caregivers’ associations, who called it a good start toward improving the state’s nursing facilities.
Shelley said he became interested in nursing home laws five years ago after his mother had a stroke and he had to find a facility to care for her. He introduced Thelma Shelley, 79, at the bill signing ceremony.
Patient advocate Pat McGinnis said she appreciated the state’s efforts, but doubted that the increased fines would deter abuse at nursing homes, since the real issue was a shortage of nursing staff.
“I approach this bill with some ambivalence. We’re certainly happy about the bill in some respects. There are some wonderful rights for residents,” said McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reforms. “We don’t want to punish nursing homes, we want to stop the pattern of bad behavior.”
Under the new law, the Department of Health Services will have to investigate suspected violations within five days. If the violation involves the threat of imminent death or serious injury the department has 24 hours to investigate.
“What we didn’t get in the bill – which the governor is going to have to deal with – is staffing ratios. We got a study instead. We don’t need another study, even the department knows that,” she said.
Davis vetoed a similar Shelley measure last year because it would have required nursing homes to increase staffing. The bill signed Thursday states that the Legislature wants staffing levels raised by 2004, but it doesn’t require nursing homes to do so.
The bill provides incentives to nursing homes to pay fines promptly. Those that pay within 30 days would get a 35 percent reduction in the fine. Currently, that 35 percent reduction applies if the fine is paid within 15 days.
The measure also would allow the state Department of Health Services to put a nursing home on probation if it has accrued $35,000 in federal fines.
Davis signed several other bills relating to elder care Thursday, including measures that will improve geriatric education at various University of California campuses, strengthens protections for the elderly who purchase financial products and requires nursing homes that advertise that they specialize in Alzheimer’s Disease to have specifically trained staff.
The current state budget includes $371 million for elderly care, including increased staff training, facility improvements and tax credits for long term health care.